The man in the mirror: Utah State faces similar foe in Fresno State

Prior to the season, this was circled as one of the marquee games of the Mountain West football season. Utah State, fresh off an 11-2 campaign which ended in the AP Top 25, versus Fresno State, fresh off a 12-2 season that ended with a win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Despite being an inter-divisional matchup, this game had plausible opportunity to be a decisive game in the race for the MW title game.

Two months later, and neither Aggie or Bulldog is where they want to be nor where they thought they’d be back in August.

Utah State’s struggles are well-known to the Cache Valley faithful. 2019 started promising enough with a close loss to a currently-ranked Wake Forest squad and a road victory over San Diego State, the program’s first win over the Aztecs in over 50 years. USU looked to be in the running for the Mountain division crown. Then the wheels came off. The Aggies suffered a blowout loss to Air Force and then chased that with a dispiriting showing versus BYU. The combined deficit of 52 points of USU’s past two games are the worst two-game stretch in a single season for the Aggies since losing to Idaho and Boise State by a combined 58 points in 2010. Now, Utah State is fighting for bowl eligibility. At 4-4, USU needs victories in its final four games: this week at Fresno State, at home versus Wyoming and Boise State, and on the road at New Mexico.

Across the field, a similar scenario has acted itself out. The Bulldogs also started their season with promise in defeat. A 31-23 loss to USC in week one followed by a 38-35 loss in double-overtime to Minnesota dashed Fresno State’s hopes of contending for the Group-of-5’s New Year’s Six bid, but the Bulldogs looked well enough in defeat to suggest their chances of a division title and a MW championship would be alive and well. Just like USU, the wheels came off. A blowout loss to Air Force, then a flummoxing loss to Colorado State at home have derailed those aspirations. At 4-4, Fresno State is still seeking bowl eligibility as well, and will also need two victories out of their final four games: this week versus Utah State, at San Diego State, at home versus Nevada, and closing out on the road at San Jose State.

You can see the similarities. Each team has fallen well short of expectations this year, but each team is technically still alive in the race for a MW title, albeit with slim odds. Utah State would require some help in reaching a title game. The Aggies would need to win out but would need another Air Force loss in order to avoid falling victim to tiebreakers. Fresno State, meanwhile, actually does control their own destiny. If the Bulldogs win out, Fresno State would hold the tiebreaker over SDSU and represent the West division in the MW title game. For both the Bulldogs and Aggies, however, any likely scenario involving a division title and a MW title appearance relies on a victory on Saturday. In other words, Saturday’s matchup will shatter one team’s season-long goal. Each side may only be 4-4, but there are major implications.

As with most underwhelming teams, the reasons for optimism still exist. For the Bulldogs, the team goes as QB Jorge Reyna goes. On the year, Fresno State is 4-0 when Reyna avoids an interception and a ghastly 0-4 if Reyna tosses even one. Reyna’s 228 yards per game average isn’t astounding, but he’s supplemented those air yards with 30.5 yards per game on the ground. In recent weeks, Fresno State’s protected Reyna from turnovers, opting for a more run-heavy attack whenever possible. RB Ronnie Rivers has carried that weight, going over 100 yards rushing in two straight contests. While the offense has largely managed to put up quality numbers, the defense has slipped from last season’s stoutness. The Bulldogs allowed over 500 yards of offense to both Colorado State and Hawaii. Over their past three games, the Bulldogs have allowed 6.1 yards per play, ranking 96th in the nation in that time.

The issue for USU, however, is that the Aggies rank 98th during that time with 6.2 yards per play, and that includes a strong showing versus Nevada. Utah State’s defense, at one point considered one of the strengths of the team, struggled intensely versus Air Force and BYU, and without All-American candidate David Woodward, a turnaround performance will be that much more difficult. Stacking the box to stop the run may not be an option, however. Fresno State’s top three wide receivers this season all stand over 6-foot-1: Zane Pope (6-2), Derrion Grim (6-1), and Keric Wheatfall (6-1). That could spell trouble for a secondary which has struggled with size this season.

Utah State’s offense will need to show drastic improvement over past weeks for the Aggies to come away with the road victory, and there are areas to exploit within the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior RB Gerold Bright will need to lead USU’s rushing attack against a defense that has allowed over 100 yards rushing to every FBS opponent so far this season. Junior QB Jordan Love, more than anything, needs to avoid the interceptions that have tanked the Aggie offense in recent weeks. Despite over 500 yards of offense versus BYU, the Aggies managed only 14 points due in large part to Love’s four turnovers on the day. Any type of repeat performance would doom USU on Saturday. Utah State would do well to adopt Fresno State’s gameplan of recent weeks: feature the ground game prominently and using it to give Love easier reads and throws in the passing game. The Aggie offense has proven it can move the ball well both through the air and on the ground. Repeatedly shooting itself in the foot has been USU’s main problem.

Saturday represents an opportunity for both Utah State and Fresno State. Each side has suffered through a disappointing 2019 campaign up to this point, dropping close games versus P5 opponents and falling behind in conference play. The winner will stand a single victory away from bowl eligibility and remain in the thick of their respective division title races. The loser will drop to 4-5 and face a far more uncertain and unsteady future. Someone’s drive for the MW title will come to end on Saturday.

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