Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 2 opponent: the Fresno State Bulldogs.
Oh hey, Jeff Tedford. Long time no see!
The former UC Berkeley head man took over the Bulldogs last year after a few years of assistant coaching jobs here and there, and he helped engineer one of most impressive program turnarounds last year, taking a team that had gone 1-11 in 2016 and leading them to a 10-4 record, a 23rd ranking in S&P+, a division championship, and a bowl victory over Houston. In the process, the Bulldogs improved their offensive S&P+ ranking from 123rd in 2016 to 68th last year, and posted the best defensive S&P+ ranking in Fresno State history, ranking 13th.
Not bad for a first year.
Let me get this out of the way first: Fresno State only lost their #2 receiver and two offensive linemen from last year’s squad. One of those linemen was 2nd-team all-conference, but all in all, not a ton of attrition. The reason I mention that up front is because Fresno State made a ton of progress from their previous spots in 2016, and with that kind of continuity, it wouldn’t be surprising to see their offense continue to improve this year.
Marcus McMaryion is returning to QB this year, and he was hyper-efficient last year, completing 62% of his passes, limiting turnovers, and scrambling for positive yards when he needed to. I’m sure that will work out well for the UCLA defense. McMaryion’s top receiver, KeeSean Johnson, returns as well, and he was 7th in the nation in targets, and passed the 100 yard threshold 4 times last year. The Bulldogs also have Jamire Jordan back, and welcome in Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick, a name that should be familiar to UCLA recruiting watchdogs.
At running back, all three running backs from last year return. None of the options are true home run threats, but they didn’t need to be. Instead, they got their yards and kept the chains moving, making things easier on the passing game. And despite losing two offensive linemen, the three returning starters are all more than capable, and Fresno State actually has some relief waiting in the wings. This unit should continue to get better.
If you were a fan of bend-don’t-break defense, you probably loved Fresno State. Last year’s Bulldogs defense was amazing at stopping the big play, and limited opponents to 10.5 yards per pass completion, meaning teams had to try and chunk away against a strong defensive line that routinely held up.
Except, that shouldn’t be the case this year. Or at least, not to the level of success the Bulldogs had.
Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer is gone, leaving to the CFL. Replacing him will be Bert Watts, who was linebackers coach last year following a stint as UC Davis’s defensive coordinator. Most of that defensive line is gone as well, especially Robert Stanley, Tobenna Okeke, Malik Forrester, who combined for 32 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 5 forced fumbles, and accounted for 26% of Fresno State’s havoc plays (for reference, a havoc play is a play where a play results in a tackle for loss, pass defensed, interception, or forced fumble. Essentially, havoc plays = really good result for a defense). Two backups on the line are gone as well, so this unit will take a clear step back.
The good news for the Bulldogs is that most of their linebacker and secondary core return, and those units should be relative strengths for the team. There is a lot of experience at linebacker, where the top 5 tacklers return, and the secondary returns the entire two-deep. There is a question of depth in the secondary, especially for a team that had some ridiculous injury luck last year, but that might not be a huge deal this early in the season.
If you read this whole thing, you might think Fresno State is going to be a ridiculously tough game for the Bruins. Now, let me offer some different evidence:
September 9, 2017 - Alabama 41, Fresno State 10
September 16, 2017 - Washington 48, Fresno State 16
Yes, Alabama is Alabama, but UCLA and Washington have similar talent levels (you could even argue UCLA has had better talent, but Washington had far superior coaching), so there is still a talent gap between a program like UCLA and Fresno State. What should help UCLA out more is that the Bulldogs travel to Minnesota the week prior. Minnesota is still rebuilding, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see Fresno State win that game, but the Golden Gophers are a physical team, and that could weaken up Fresno State and make them easy pickings for the Bruins. At least, that’s what I’m going with for now, and the Bruins should be able to feast against a rebuilding defensive line.
UCLA 38, Fresno State 20