The opportunity to stay in the race for a Mountain West divisional title is on the line for the Utah State and Fresno State football teams this weekend.
The Bulldogs host the Aggies on Saturday at 5 p.m. in a pivotal Mountain West showdown televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network. Both teams need to win this game in order to entertain any legitimate thoughts of a divisional title, plus the loser will have an uphill climb toward bowl eligibility.
“Fresno State is an athletic team, as always,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “They’ve had some solid games as they’ve gone through the year and have continued to battle through the year. We’re in very similar spots. They are last year’s Mountain West champions. They have a good football team and they understand how they’re going to be able to win football games. ... We’re in the fight and we’re in the race. Our guys will be excited to come back and battle, which they will.”
Both teams have experienced plenty of highs and lows during the 2019 campaign and enter Saturday’s matchup with 4-4 records. However, the Bulldogs (4-4, 2-2 MW) and Aggies (4-4, 3-1) have been trending in opposite directions as of late. Fresno State has won two of its last three games and has averaged 42.6 points an outing during that stretch, while USU has been outscored by a combined margin of 73-21 in back-to-back loses to Air Force and BYU.
Nevertheless, FSU head coach Jeff Telford is expecting a formidable challenge from an Aggie squad that is desperate to get its season back on track.
“(That’s a) very good football team,” Telford said of USU. “As we’re getting into them today, understanding that they played Air Force and Air Force has really kind of shown to be able to do that to most people, so you’ve kind of got to throw that (game) out the (window). And BYU’s a really good football team, but (USU) has also had some big wins. You know, they beat San Diego State, Colorado State, Nevada. They played Wake Forest really tough at the beginning of the year, (and) they’re a quality football team all the way around. ... A lot of talent on their team and (they’re) very well coached, so we’re going to have our hands full.”
A FSU victory would set up a huge showdown against No. 24 San Diego State next Friday, with the winner being in the driver’s seat for the West Division title. The Bulldogs are aiming for their third straight divisional crown, which didn’t even seem like a possibility earlier this season. That’s because FSU, which had to replace 13 of 22 starters from last year’s 12-2 team, took its lumps early on.
The Bulldogs were very competitive on the road against USC and at home against Minnesota, which is undefeated and currently ranked 13th nationally. The Bulldogs probably should have won that game, but dropped a 38-35 heartbreaker in double overtime. Like USU, FSU lost in convincing fashion on the road against Air Force, but the Bulldogs have been competitive in every other game in ‘19.
Telford has been the catalyst to FSU’s ascension as one of the premier programs in the Mountain West. Telford inherited a terrible 1-11 squad following the 2016 campaign and promptly went 10-4 and 12-2 during his first two seasons at the helm.
“Jeff Telford is a heck of a coach,” Andersen said. “... Fresno State’s always been a team who is going to be who they are. You get an identity of a team and what their position is, and they’re physical, tough, athletic. I think they’re very well coached. You don’t win a championship a year ago and be where they were and not have a great group of kids that are very talented and have great coaches.”
The Aggies have struggled mightily defensively the past two weeks, and must bounce back against one of the most balanced offenses they will face this season. Fresno State has averaged 244.4 yards per game through the air and 165.2 on the ground, but has averaged 246.0 yards rushing and 7.0 yards an carry during its last three contests.
For the third time in their last four games, the Aggies will be facing a mobile quarterback. Senior Jorge Reyna threw for 188 yards and rushed for another 96 in his team’s big 41-38 road triumph over Hawaii last weekend. It was the bounce-back performance FSU was hoping for following a 41-31 loss at home to Colorado State the previous week.
“He’s very smart, much like the two young men (for BYU) we faced last week,” Andersen said of Reyna. “They’re savvy, smart football players. They make good decisions. They’re not going to cost their team, and when he has an opportunity to run, he’ll go out and run. He’s been a very good quarterback for the scheme that they’re asking him to play.”
The Bulldogs welcomed back six starters from a very good defense a year ago, including first-team all-Mountain West linebacker Mykal Walker and second-team all-league safety Juju Hughes. Nevertheless, FSU has been pretty shaky defensively this season as it has allowed 31.9 points per game and 409.6 yards an outing.
The Bulldogs have been good at forcing turnovers, though, as they have intercepted 10 passes — which ranks 17th among all FBS teams — and have recovered eight fumbles. Utah State turned the ball over five times against BYU and can’t afford to make similar mistakes against FSU.
This will be the fifth opponent USU has faced this season that went to a bowl game a year ago. The Aggies will be looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak since dropping their final five contests to close out the 2016 campaign.
Notes: Only five current Aggies — cornerback Cameron Haney, holder Aaron Dalton, defensive tackle Christopher Unga, and defensive ends Jacoby Wildman and Justus Te’i — played the last time their team squared off against the Bulldogs. Haney recorded a career-high eight tackles and broke up a pair of passes in USU’s 38-20 triumph over visiting FSU on Oct. 23, 2016. ... Seven freshman have started at least one game this season for FSU; 39 Bulldogs have been in the starting lineup at least once.