With UConn football’s season opener just a day away, we thought it’d be great to get the inside scoop on the Huskies’ first opponent. Matthew Kenerly of Mountain West Wire was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. You can check out our Q&A with them here.
The UConn Blog: We predicted that this year’s Fresno State team “should be better than last year’s team on both sides of the ball.” Do you think that’s true?
Matthew Kenerly: I think there’s a good case to be made for that statement for very different reasons on either side of the ball. The Fresno Bee noted back in May that coordinator Ryan Grubb had made scoring 41.3 points per game a goal for his offense, which would put these Bulldogs within shouting distance of the 2013 team that featured Derek Carr and Davante Adams. It’s lofty, but doable.
That’s because this offense brings back every major contributor from 2020 and a few guys, like wide receivers Zane Pope and Emoryie Edwards and tight end Juan Rodriguez, who were sidelined for various reasons, and some key transfers like Ty Jones and Jordan Wilmore.
As for the defense, the trick will be to hold onto the major gains like a pass rush that had a 11.2% sack rate but while also shoring up a unit that gave up 36 plays of 20 or more yards in six games. Chances are the numbers that pop won’t be quite as flashy as in 2020 but if the tradeoff is more unexciting three-and-outs and the like, they’ll surely take it.
TUB: What can you tell us about the Fresno State secondary? Did not seem to be any previous all-conference selections at that position and the stats there can be misleading. Who are the best players in that group?
MK: I think it’s hard to get a read on just how good or bad the secondary was in 2020 because they held the teams in check that you’d expect (UNLV, Utah State) but, once COVID finally struck with a pair of canceled games and subsequent absences, they were sort of thrown into disarray, letting Carson Strong and New Mexico’s Isaiah Chavez move the ball nearly at will.
The Bulldogs have three starters back here, too (four if you include the hybrid-ish Husky position), which is a good position to be in. Wylan Free is a solid cornerback, his counterpart Bralyn Lux emerged as a pleasant surprise as a year-long starter, and both had four passes defended each in the short season. They may not be top-tier talents yet, but they won’t be weak links.
TUB: UConn’s strength offensively will most likely be the run game, what is the state of Fresno State’s run defense this year?
MK: Much of that will depend on how well the rebuilt linebacker unit performs. Tyson Maeva arrived from the transfer portal from Florida International after heading there from Boise State, won a starting job and was named a team captain, so I’d say the expectation is he’ll get back to his 2017-18 form. Levelle Bailey is also entrenched here, too, after spending most of 2020 at Husky. It’s reasonable to feel optimistic after giving up over five yards per carry last season, but it’s okay to feel some trepidation about the shuffling, too.
TUB: Where are the overall expectations for the Bulldogs this year? Would it be fair to say most fans are expecting at least a bowl berth?
MK: A bowl bid is definitely the floor but, even with a tough conference schedule and a relatively modest win projection from Vegas, there’s an expectation that the Bulldogs can rise above the fray and win what should be a very competitive West division. Some of that has to the do with the level of continuity that almost everyone in the conference will benefit from, but some of it is past precedence, too: Head coach Kalen DeBoer was part of the Jeff Tedford staff that engineered the 2017 turnaround and 2018 surge, and they showed plenty despite the unpredictable nature of the 2020 season.
TUB: Would fans be okay with anything but a big win against a program like UConn, given where the Huskies are at this time?
MK: I think the fanbase has seen where sleepwalking against supposedly inferior opponents can linger a bit, even when the Bulldogs win, so I’d guess the hope is that Fresno State gets off to a fast start and removes all the doubt that last year’s finish left behind.
TUB: Any intel you can share on Wyoming? We’re playing them later in the season.
MK: The Cowboys are one of the most experienced teams in the country and, given better injury luck and a new coordinator hire on offense, the time is right now for Craig Bohl’s team to break through.
A lot of Wyoming’s fortunes will hinge on just how much that new coordinator, Tim Polasek, has helped incumbent starting quarterback Sean Chambers improve as a passer. Chambers is definitely an asset as a runner, averaging six yards per carry with twelve rushing touchdowns in 13 career games, but he’s heading into his fourth year with the brown and gold with a 46.3% completion rate and basically one year of experience as a starter because of ineffectiveness and injuries, respectively. He might be the biggest X-factor anywhere in the Mountain West.
If he can lead the offense to a performance which matches the Wyoming defense... watch out. That unit wasn’t even at full strength in 2020 because of opt outs and such and still managed to finish third in the Mountain West by yards per play allowed and 19th nationally in points per drive allowed. Now, they return all eleven starters and bring back those opt outs, most notably defensive end Solomon Byrd, to supplement all-conference caliber athletes like linebacker Chad Muma, cornerback C.J. Coldon, and defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole.