On Saturday, September 6th at 1:00 pm MT, the Utah Utes will take on Fresno State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a meeting between two former WAC foes. Fresno State had a great year last year, no doubt about that. They won the Mountain West Conference and started 11-0 before losing 2 of their last 3 (including a blow out loss to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl). Third year head coach Tim DeRuyter is back, as are third-year coordinators Dave Schramm (formerly Utah's offensive coordinator) and Nick Toth (defense). DeRuyter was recently given a contract extension through 2018, which is good for Fresno since his name has been linked to some high-profile coaching positions recently. He is a sharp, up-and-coming, defensive-minded head coach. The teams last met in 1999 in the Las Vegas Bowl, with Utah winning 17-16. Fresno's last win in Salt Lake City was in 1990, but that does not concern Mountain West Connection editor Matt Kenerly, as these teams are very different than they were in the ‘90's in the WAC.
Fresno State returns only five offensive starters from last year's prolific, pass-oriented spread offense (almost 550 yards and 43 points per game). Phil Steele predicts the Fresno State offense to take the biggest step back of any offense (both in total yards and passing yards). This makes sense, given the losses of second round NFL draft picks Derek Carr (quarterback) and Davante Adams (wide receiver) in addition to Isaiah Burse (number two wide out), Marcel Jenson (tight end, second team All Mountain West Conference), and Austin Wentworth (left tackle, two-time first team All Mountain West Conference). These losses mean Fresno State will probably not throw the ball 675 times this season. This is coupled with increased talent and depth at the running back position, with former BYU transfer Josh Quezada and Martez Waller (who combined for 1,416 yards rushing, 463 yards receiving, and 14 total touchdowns). Last season, Fresno State gave up a sack on only 1.6% of passing plays, which led the nation. It will be interesting to see how Fresno does against Utah's pressure. They lose two starters along the o-line (including Wentworth), but there is talent and experience returning (keep an eye on right guard Cody Wichmann).
Fresno State returns six starters on defense. This is the side of the ball that has all of Fresno State's players to watch according to Kennerly. They blitz constantly and will bring pressure from all over (good for sixth in the nation in sacks in 2013). Fresno runs a 3-4. They only return one starter on the d-line, the talented defensive tackle (possible defensive end) Tyeler Davison (second team All Mountain West, with 41 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and two sacks last season). With only one starter back, the defensive line will probably struggle this year (especially early). Utah will need to take advantage of this and run the football effectively, since one of Matt Kenerly's keys to the game for Fresno to win is to force Utah to be one dimensional by taking away Utah's running game. The losses along the defensive line may be mitigated by the fact that Fresno returns all four starting linebackers, including second team All Mountain West, Ejiro Ederaine (63 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, and 10 sacks last season).
Fresno returns a lot of talent in the secondary this season. The group is lead by Derron Smith, a guy Utah will have to account for on defense. He is currently has the most interceptions of any active player in college football. Watching highlights of him against USC in the bowl game last year, Fresno likes to move him around. There are times he is playing close to the line, and he will also play deep (expect him to blitz from either position). Fresno returns six of their top eight defensive backs (though the two lost were starters), which leads Phil Steele to predict them to be seventh most improved pass defense next season. Watching the Las Vegas Bowl, it seemed that screens to the halfback were particularly successful against the Fresno State pressure.
This is a game Utah wins and should win. This game is where we will start to learn about this Utah team. Last year's two worst position groups were the offensive line and secondary. Both position groups should be tested by Fresno State with the constant pressure they bring on defense and the amount they throw the ball on offense. Both groups will be better this year than last year, however. Utah will be able to establish their ground game and throw screens to guys like Poole, McCormick, Anderson, and Clay to utilize their speed in space to offset some of the pressure.
With Fresno's losses in the passing game and an improved Utah secondary, I do not think Fresno will be able to put up enough points to win. Matt Kenerly believes that Fresno will win the game 21-20 with Derron Smith making a big play to decide the game. For the reasons I mentioned (and it being at RES), I have to disagree; I see Utah winning 31-17 (which is in line with MNUte's prediction of 37-17) in a game that is close for a while, then Utah pulls away at the end.