Analysis: Utah-Fresno State position preview
The Utes did exactly as they were supposed to do in the team's season opener against Idaho State, rolling over an FCS team while looking efficient on offense and explosive on special teams. The defense was underwhelming, allowing the Bengals to rack up 179 rushing yards, a weakness the coaches and players have stated all week they must address. The Utes this week get Fresno State at home, a team that is better than it showed last week in a 52-13 shellacking at USC. The Bulldogs aren't Pac-12 level quality, but they did win 11 games last season and are a significant step above Idaho State. With that in mind, here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
Travis Wilson only played the first half of the game, but looked efficient and confident returning from his injury. Wilson was 13-of-18 on his passing attempts for 265 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 12 more yards and leaping through the air for another touchdown. Wilson could have another big day against a Fresno Secondary that allowed USC's passers to throw for 424 yards and four touchdowns. It appears Kendal Thompson will also be used in certain packages and was effective in the first week, accounting for 96 yards of offense of his own.
Fresno State is still embroiled in an unsettled quarterback situation, with neither showing much in the first game against a vaunted USC defense. Junior Brian Burrell got the start for Fresno, but completed only 11 passes for 92 yards and an interception. Rotating in was Duke transfer Brandon Connette, who fared even worse by completing only seven passes for 68 yards and three interceptions. The Utes secondary is still finding its feet, but as long as the Bulldogs roll with a two quarterback system, Utah has a clear advantage here.
One of the breakout stars of Utah's first game was Devontae Booker, who flashed throughout spring and fall camp. Booker rushed for 78 yards on 10 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 38-yard scamper in the second quarter. Bubba Poole opened scoring for the Utes and looked strong in the game as well, racking up 42 yards on six carries. Despite a fumble, Troy McCormick also looked like a solid complement, with 12 carries for 45 yards. Wilson continues to be a rushing threat and with the aforementioned three, Utah's 'backs should have another good day against Fresno.
If there was a bright spot on Fresno State's offense last week, it was junior running back Marteze Waller. Waller carried the ball 16 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns, accounting for the Bulldogs' only points of the game. Burrell and Connette can run a little bit too, combining for 55 yards of their own on the ground, but Waller is the real centerpiece. A key battle will be if the Utah defensive line can contain him better than they contained Idaho State last week.
Dres Anderson was his usual speedy self, taking the top off Idaho State's defense for 111 yards on only four receptions. More important were the returns of Kenneth Scott and Westlee Tonga, who were out at various times last season with injuries. Wilson hooked up with Scott for 57 yards and a 26-yard touchdown, while Tonga has the makings of a strong downfield threat and a safety blanket for Wilson. The tight end had five receptions for 61 yards. Other options include Kaelin Clay, who could become a big play threat if he can translate his returning prowess to the passing game and Delshawn McClellon .
As the quarterbacks struggled for Fresno State, so did the receivers. Gone is Davante Adams, who routinely torched Mountain West secondaries last season and in are Josh Harper, Da'Mari Scott and Delvon Hardaway. Harper is the leader as a senior, but struggled to get open against USC's secondary, catching six pases for 56 yards. Scott and Hardaway combined for only 33 yards. Running back Malique Micenheimer showed some pass catching ability, grabbing four passes for 38 yards of his own, but the Bulldogs will need more from Harper and others to have a chance against the Utes.
The Utes offensive line did well in the first game, surrendering only two sacks when Thompson was playing, mostly due to his freewheeling style. They kept Wilson clean and upright and plowed the way for 238 yards in the running game. Fresno State will almost assuredly be a tougher test, but getting center Siaosi Aiono will also help.
Fresno State, despite being matched up with one of the best defensive lineman in the country in USC's Leonard Williams, held up fairly well. The Trojans only grabbed one sack, even with fairly consistent pressure, and should have an easier time with Utah's defensive line that looked shaky at times against Idaho State. The line moved USC well to plow ahead for Waller and should do the same this week.
As was stated earlier, the defensive line and linebackers were the weak spot in last week's victory. Kyle Whittingham, Nate Orchard and Jason Whittingham all lamented poor positioning and missed assignments this week. 179 yards on the ground surrendered to Idaho State doesn't bode well for a team like Fresno State, but the Utes have had a chance to rectify mistakes over the last week. Orchard looked like the terror he was expected to be, racking up 2.5 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while Lowell Lotuleilei had a sack of his own. The team still misses Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul, but should be able to string together a much better performance if they can pressure Burrell/Connette and contain Waller.
Defensively, Fresno State is better than the numbers given up against USC. Returning eight starters from last season, the Bulldogs should be improved this week. The team couldn't generate a sack on Kessler, but junior outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, who had 13 sacks last season, had two tackles for loss last week. Linebacker Donavon Lewis forced and recovered a fumble, while Jeff Camili had a tackle for loss of his own. Still, the Bulldogs don't have the talent or depth of Utah as a whole.
Utah's biggest concern heading into the season opener held up well over the first game. Eric Rowe looked like the leader he was expected to be at corner, breaking up a pass and blocking a field goal. Brian Blechen looked physical in his return from injury, as did transfer Tevin Carter in his first action as a Ute. Boobie Hobbs looked shaky in the second half, but the secret weapon may be converted wide receiver Dominique Hatfield, who protected his side of the field well when called upon.
Senior free safety Derron Smith was expected to be the marquee returner for the Bulldogs after picking off 14 passes in his career entering the season. He lived up to the billing, shining on an overall dismal defensive outing, racking up 11 total tackles, a pass breakup and a pass deflection. Still, the unit was victimized for 424 passing yards and 701 yards as a whole defensive unit. Wilson should be able to rack up some yards just as easily as Kessler did.
Prediction: Fresno State is definitely a step above Idaho State, but the talent level isn't there for the Bulldogs offensively after Derek Carr and Adams left for the NFL. Utah's defensive line was shaky last week, but the Utes have had a week to address missed assignments. The Utes also have more weapons offensively than the team has had in years and should be able to put up some points at home. The Bulldogs will keep it closer than Idaho State, but the Utes will still cruise to a 35-17 victory.