The no. 21 ranked Utah Utes head out on the road for the first time this season to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs in Fresno. The Utes will be walking into a traditionally tough stadium to play in. On top of the travel, Fresno will be pumped up as they welcome nationally ranked Utah on their blackout night. The Bulldogs are pulling out all the stops to get fans and players excited for this game and Utah can expect to receive Fresno's best shot.
Head coach Tim DeRuyter is 18-2 at home, since taking over the program and Utah is 0-3 all time in Fresno. Utah will likely not have Travis Wilson or Hunter Dimick in the lineup, which is a break for Fresno State. Despite all the advantages Fresno has going into the game, they are still a heavy underdog going into Saturday night. One reason is their question marks on offense.
Dave Schramm, a familiar face for Utah fans, is in his fourth season as the Fresno State offensive coordinator. One of Schramm's biggest challenges right now is figuring out who will be the quarterback for his offense. As you might remember from last season, Fresno State played two quarterbacks in Utah's 59-27 win, with neither playing very well. This year they have two new quarterbacks, but still no clear established starter.
The options are sophomore Zach Greenlee and freshman Chason Virgil. Greenlee received the bulk of the snaps in Fresno State's season opener against Abilene Christian, throwing for three touchdowns and one interception. He only completed 43.8% of his passes however, and only passed for 156 yards against a small school opponent. In last week's ugly 73-21 defeat at the hands of Ole Miss, Greenlee struggled to get anything going, throwing for only 13 yards on four passes. He was replaced by Virgil, who moved the ball much more effectively throwing for two touchdowns and two interceptions and 160 yards.
Virgil was a big pickup for Fresno State as they beat out a couple power 5 conference schools for the 3 star recruit out of Texas. Virgil is a talented athlete with some mobility and a nice throwing touch. He is still a freshman however and if he starts on Sunday, it will be his first collegiate start.
Zack Greenlee has experience, being a redshirt sophomore. With three years in the program, he knows the system better than Virgil. Greenlee was named the starter at the end of camp mostly due to his ability to take care of the football, but he needs to do more than not turn the ball over for Fresno State to win games. Based on the two quarterbacks play over the past two weeks, it's possible the freshman Virgil will get the start at home, but it would not be surprising to see Schramm play both quarterbacks against Utah.
The star on offense for the Bulldogs is senior running back Marteze Waller. The 5-11 215 lb. back rushed for 154 yards on 22 carries in the season opener, and 91 yards on 28 carries against Ole Miss. Waller is also effective catching the ball out of the backfield. Against Ole Miss, Waller had four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown. Much like Utah relies on Devontae Booker, Fresno State relies on Waller when the going gets tough. The bad news for Fresno State however, is Utah has the top run defense in the Pac-12 and is giving up under a 100 yards rushing a game. The Utes will key in on Waller and try to neutralize his threat in the run game.
Where Fresno State may have more luck is throwing the ball. Utah's defense currently ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 267.5 pass yards per game. It is still young in the season however and those numbers might improve. Utah also has more interceptions (5) than they do passing touchdowns allowed (4), so the young Fresno State quarterbacks will need to do a good job protecting the ball if they want to win.
At receiver, Fresno State has junior college transfer Josiah Blandin, who's first career catch was a touchdown two weeks ago against Abilene Christian. Blandin is a big receiver at 6-4 215 lbs. and was a main target in week one with 4 receptions. Against Ole Miss, Blandin only recorded one reception for 9 yards, but it was a touchdown reception. Utah will need to keep an eye on him in the red zone.
Speaking of big receivers, 6-5 236 lb. tight end Chad Olsen is another big Fresno State target. The sophomore tight end caught two passes, both for touchdowns in the season opener and caught three passes for 34 yards in the loss to Ole Miss. Freshman Jamire Jordan at 5-10 168, is the smaller, speed threat for the Bulldogs. He was held in check last week however, recording 3 reception for only 3 yards.
A key mathcup for Fresno State will be how their offensive line holds up against Utah's front seven. The ability to create running room for Waller is critical to the Bulldogs offensive success. Against Abilene Christian in week one, the line was able to get in a groove during the second half allowing Waller to average 7 yards per carry. They struggled against the much more talented Ole Miss front seven however, as Waller was stifled much of the game, his yard per carry average dropping to 3.25.
Fresno State has young quarterbacks, that even in an energized home environment, will probably need some help to pull out a win against Utah. The task at hand appears pretty simple for Utah's defense. Neutralize Marteze Waller and make one of the two young Fresno State quarterbacks beat the secondary. With the return of Dominique Hatfield last week, the secondary should only improve.
Fresno will be a tough environment for the Utes to play in. With a trip to Autzen looming next week, this game could be tricky if the Utah gets caught looking ahead. Fresno State has a history of knocking off Power 5 schools who don't take them seriously. When all is said and done however, Utah really has no excuse not to win this game. Using ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) Fresno State only has an 11.3% chance of winning. That's pretty slim odds no matter how you slice it. Saturday should provide the Utes with a final chance to work out some kinks before heading into conference play in Eugene.