The surprise stories of the past two seasons in Mountain West football came from FCS dynasty-builder Craig Bohl leading a surprise Wyoming bunch to the conference title game in 2016, and longtime Pac-12 fixture Jeff Tedford returning to head coaching to oversee a worst-to-first turnaround at Fresno State.
The two programs are on different trajectories midway through the 2018 campaign. After shocking the MW en route to the West division title in 2017, Fresno State's living up to its billing as the preseason pick to return to the championship game. Wyoming, on the other hand, is off to a 2-4 start and struggling to jump-start its offense after losing a first-round pick in last spring's NFL draft.
Wyoming needs to regroup on the back-half of its schedule in order to reach a third consecutive bowl game under Bohl. For Fresno State, Saturday's #MWLateNight affair is an important home date before it embarks on a stretch with three road games in four weeks.
Wyoming at Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Sack success
For much of this season, Fresno State has executed meticulously. The Bulldogs play with discipline and precision on both sides of the ball, and one of the areas in which they've excelled is quarterback protection. Marcus McMaryion has only been sacked four times, and Fresno State ranks sixth nationally in sacks allowed.
Contrast that with Wyoming, which ranks 115th nationally in sacks given up. The Cowboys' struggles to protect quarterback Tyler Vander Waal contribute directly to the offensive woes hamstringing Wyoming. Only three teams in FBS are averaging fewer points per game.
A talented Fresno State defense should be able to tee off. Linebacker George Helmuth is just one sack shy of matching his 2017 total; he should hit that number, four, at some point on Saturday.
2. Getting going on the run
Although Wyoming's put far fewer points on the board than Fresno State, neither team's been particularly great on the ground. In fact, Wyoming's 144.3 rushing yards per game slightly outpace Fresno State's 138.4. The Cowboys also average about 0.3 yards more per carry.
Wyoming's most consistent failing through a disappointing start isn't due to defense. The Wyoming front seven is one of the more aggressive and physical Fresno State will have seen to this point. Rather, the Cowboys' inability to keep its defense off the field (99th in FBS in time of possession) proves taxing.
Fresno State's multifaceted rushing attack, with four Bulldogs averaging between 22 and 45 rushing yards per game, must extend drives to wear down the Wyoming defense.
3. KeeSean Johnson
Johnson, the most explosive weapon in the Fresno State offense, can turn games with just a handful of targets. The senior wide receiver scored two touchdowns in the rout of Toledo on Sept. 29. Johnson returned to Fresno State in 2018 as the top receiver, eclipsing 1,000 yards in 2017. Games in which defenses held him in check, Fresno State lost (55 and 51 yards vs. Alabama and Washington, 21 yards vs. UNLV) or put up paltry point totals in defensive slugfests (48 yards in the 13-7 Fresno State win at Wyoming).
If Johnson and McMaryion start hooking up, it could be a long night for the Cowboys. He'll get plenty of targets, but limiting the explosive gains is key to containing the Fresno State offense.
Jeff Tedford's offensive acumen first as a coordinator at Oregon then as head coach at Cal made him the toast of the old Pac-10. As the Golden Bears slipped in the early part of this decade, Tedford fell out of favor. He bounced around since leaving Cal after the 2012 season, including a stint at Washington as an assistant on Chris Petersen's staff.
Fresno State mirrors Petersen's Washington Huskies in some key ways. The Bulldogs play tenacious defense, losing nothing from defensive line, to linebacker, to secondary. The offense isn't eye-popping like Tedford's teams in the Pac, but the Bulldogs are more than efficient. Saturday's the kind of matchup that most plays to their strengths.
Fresno State should be able to constrict any life out of the Wyoming offense and move the ball effectively enough to eventually open the flood gates.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, Wyoming 10
(Top photo courtesy of @FresnoStateFB)