The last time these teams met, USC had its way with the Fresno State Bulldogs in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl. Fast forward nine months, and the same teams will take the field, both with conference championship expectations, high-powered offenses and some noteworthy stars on the defensive side of the ball.
Exit record-setting quarterback Derek Carr and star WR Davante Adams and coach Tim DeRuyter will have to find ways new ways to put points on the board. For more on what the new, and hopefully improved Fresno State attack can bring to the table, we chatted with Mountain West Connection writer Scott Tejerian to examine the Bulldogs.
Q. Who will Fresno State look to at quarterback to fill the large void left by Derek Carr, and can that option keep this offense rolling?
Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette are the most likely candidates to take over, but it's tough to know at this point and just because one is starting at USC doesn't mean he'll be starting the next week in Utah. Nobody's expecting 50 TDs and over 5,000 yards passing, but they do expect the quarterback to take care of the football, makes smart decisions and have the ability to get the ball to the playmakers on offense.
Burrell, who lead Bakersfield College to a State Championship 2012, was the leading candidate coming out of Spring and has the most experience in the offense, but Brandon Connette brings an interesting option in terms of his ability to run the ball. He recently transferred in for his final year of eligibility after he graduated from Duke, where he holds the record for most career rushing TDs with 31, and that includes running backs.
My gut tells me that even though Connette is behind the curve in learning the offense, he's most likely to be the guy. He's played in some big games and was a major part of Duke winning 10 games last year. Against Pitt he threw for 323 yards and 4 TDs to go along with 101 yards rushing and 2 TDs and against Miami he accounted for 5 TDs (1 passing and 4 on the ground). If anything hopefully he can help Fresno with their short yardage problems from last year. Apparently, this is where Connette excelled, but part of filling the void on offense will be what I hope is a vastly improved defense that is returning 8 starters.
Q. We've heard a lot of chatter about Derron Smith heading into the season. How good can he be this season, and how do you expect the coaching staff to utilize his cover skills against USC's inexperienced WR corp?
Well, Derron Smith finished the season with 18 tackles and a pick-six in the final game against USC, so while I don't hope it turns out that way this time, I mean, if your safety has 18 tackles, that's probably not a good thing, I do expect him to be great.
Derron has been a star for Fresno State since his freshman year at Fresno State. He's a fearless, highly intelligent player who rises to the occasion on the biggest stage. I believe he had 7 tackles in the first game he started as a freshman. Before he suffered a season ending injury his sophomore year he had six tackles and an interception against Nebraska.
He's been a first-team all-conference player each of the last two years and he leads the FBS among active players with 14 career INTs. He's a player I view as the quarterback of the defense. He's able to read the offense and adjust the defense accordingly. This will be key against USC. With the athletes, speed and size that Trojans have, it will be imperative for Fresno State to be lined up in a way that will help give them an advantage.
As far as coverage skills, in the Las Vegas Bowl, Fresno State was down to their fourth string corner and their starting strong safety, Charles Washington, playing the other corner spot. Going into this season, baring any injury, I expect Fresno State to have four to six guys on the field at any time that can affectively cover.
It helps that Derron and Washington as both have the speed to cover a lot of ground. We'll see how it plays out and how much pressure the defense will be able to get on Kessler. The key to Fresno State's pass defense and coverage schemes lie in being able to disguise the coverage, put pressure on the quarterback and force them to make mistakes.
Q: Can Fresno State be more competitive against USC this time around?
I certainly hope so. The Las Vegas Bowl was heart-wrenching. I was hung over for the game (I blame Vegas) and it was hot. I was already miserable and then the game happened. In order for this game to be competitive the Fresno State defense will need to play out of their minds and they will need to do so on a consistent basis. No big plays.
In the Las Vegas Bowl when I watched the game again twice on TV (yes, I'm a masochist), I noticed that a lot of Fresno State's mistakes against USC came when players were over running the play. They're a very aggressive defense and sometimes that works against them. Coach DeRuyter talks a lot about being "assignment sound".
The defense is going to need to be assignment sound in order to keep this game competitive and hopefully USC is feeling really great about the way the played back in December, think it's going to be a cake walk and Fresno's able to surprise them.
Q: What are honest expectations on this teams win total under coach DeRuyter?
Win the MWC. I don't know how many wins that will translate to, but I'd have to believe at least 9. I was a believer when Coach DeRuyter arrived because he wanted to run the spread and the 3-4, which are two things I always felt like Fresno State should be doing based on the number of athletes on the edges they're able to recruit.
When you're USC and you can recruit a bunch of 300 pound D-linemen you can run a 4-3, but when you're Fresno State, you have to run a 3-4, simply because there are a lot more 250 pound guys out there than there are 300 pound guys. When Coach DeRuyter arrived I expected them to win immediately and my expectations haven't changed. He's a smart football couch with a great staff. I know the expectations for the team and the coaches are to win the MWC again and I don't see any reason why that expectation is anything other than realistic.
Q: Who are some players that we can expect some nice games, or breakout seasons, heading into the season?
Since we're talking USC, I'll give you four players from Southern California you may not know who could be poised for a breakout season.
Brandon Connette, Duke/Santiago HS, Corona. I'm really eager to see what he can do for Fresno and to see if he can bring some of that winning swagger and toughness to the Bulldog offense.
D'Mari Scott, Cathedral, Los Angeles. He played as a true freshman last year at wide receiver. He flashed at times, but almost seemed so anxious to run that he'd sometimes trip over himself. Hopefully last year's experience will help him harness his energy and contribute in a real positive way.
Charles Washington, Crespi, Los Angeles. I expected last year to be his breakout season and though he had a solid season as his first year as starter at Strong Safety (71 tackles, 8 TFL and 1 INT) he fell short of my expectations because they were so high. He's lightning quick and loves to hit. I expect him to be first-team all-conference with Derron Smith.
Todd Hunt, Mater Dei, Santa Ana. He should be starting at DE this year. I've always expected big things out of Hunt, but he's been slowed by injuries. He has the size and quickness and has flashed at times. He just needs to stay healthy so he can be consistent.
Q: How many Fresno State fans will travel to the Coliseum. We know you guys typically travel well, both in road games and the Vegas Bowl?
My guess would be 15,000 - 20,000. Fresno State fans love to see their Bulldogs play against Power 5 conference teams and hopefully the eight months since Vegas has faded their memories to the point where they will be excited to paint the 5 red and fill out several sections of the Coliseum.
I'll be there until the end, regardless of the outcome. I'm excited for football and to see how Fresno State can compete in what's sure to be a hostile environment.