Last Thanksgiving, Fresno State's 10-0 start had Bulldog fans thinking about busting the BCS with a January bowl bid...that is, until the defense fell apart in a 62-52 loss at San Jose State. Instead of a hoped for BCS berth, the Bulldogs had to settle for a Las Vegas Bowl matchup with Southern Cal, who dismissed Fresno State 45-20. But, what's up next for Fresno State after quarterback Derek Carr (Oakland Raiders) and wide receiver Davante Adams (Green Bay Packers) were drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft.
Coming out of spring practice, it looked like junior Brian Burrell had the edge in the battle to replace Carr. That all changed on April 24 when former Duke quarterback Brandon Connette announced that he was transferring to Fresno State. Connette has his degree from Duke, so he's eligible this season. Last December, Connette's mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, leading the Corona, California native to seek out a school closer to home to finish his career at. The 6'2" 225 pound quarterback was primarily used as a Wildcat quarterback until last season, when he started three games after starter Anthony Boone injured his collarbone in the season opener. In two of those starts, Connette topped 300 yards passing. Against Pitt, he threw for 323 yards and four touchdown and rushed for 101 yards and two more touchdowns. After Boone recovered, Connette returned to his Wildcat role, but it's clear that he could do much more if it was asked of him. For the season, Connette completed 90 of 145 passes (62%) for 1,212 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He also rushed 101 times for 337 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last season, Burrell completed seven of 12 passes for 51 yards and rushed five times for 10 yards in comparison.
Davante Adams wasn't the only thousand yard receiver that Fresno State lost from last season. Adams caught 131 passes for 1,718 yards and an incredible 24 touchdowns last season, while Isaiah Burst caught 99 passes for 1,026 yards and six touchdowns. But senior wide receiver Josh Harper (6'1" 184 pounds) does return after a 79 catch, 1,011 yard, 13 touchdown season in 2013. Look to 5'10" senior receiver Greg Watson to take a bigger role after catching 21 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown last season.
With so much uncertainty in the passing game, the Bulldogs should rely on a trio of running backs more in 2014. Senior Josh Quezada and junior Marteze Waller have identical measurements (5'11" and 214 pounds) and yards-per-carry average (5.2 yards). Quezada rushed for 807 yards and six touchdowns last season, and also caught 51 passes for 290 yards. Phil Steele lists him on his first team all-Mountain West team. Waller rushed for 646 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 23 passes for 173 yards.
Another reason to depend more on the running backs is the experience on the offensive line. They will miss all-conference left tackle Austin Wentworth (he of the ultimate Fat Guy Hook and Ladder Touchdown last season), but return four other offensive linemen with starting experience, led by senior preseason all-conference right guard Cody Wichmann.
Defensive breakdowns were the keys to last seasons' losses against San Jose State and Southern Cal, but also contributed to make victories against Rutgers (52-51), Boise State (41-40), and Hawai'i (42-37) close. In the NCAA defensive rankings, the Bulldogs ranked 86th in scoring defense, 95th in total defense, and 117th in pass defense. They did rank 41st in defending the run, though. That stat might be difficult to improve on in 2014, though, as Fresno State only returns two defensive linemen who saw any significant playing time in their 3-4 defense last season. One returner is 6'2" 304 pound senior Tyeler Davison, who'll move outside to end from nose guard this season. Mel Kiper lists him at #5 on his list of defensive tackles for the 2015 NFL Draft.
Plenty of experience returns at linebacker, where all four starter are back. Junior outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine (6'3" 220 lbs) is a first team preseason pick by Phil Steele; he led the Bulldogs with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. On the other side, senior Donavon Lewis (6'2" 239 lbs.) was a fourth team preseason pick by Phil Steele. Senior inside linebacker Karl Mickelson (6'0" 229 lbs) was the leading tackler last year with 79, while junior inside linebacker Kyrie Wilson (6'2" 228 lbs) was second with 72 last season. Fresno State plays aggressive with their linebackers, who will have to make up for the inexperience up front.
The Achilles heel on defense last season was the secondary, as the #117 ranking in pass defense would indicate. The pass rush was actually OK up front with 40 sacks on the season. But if the Bulldogs didn't get to the quarterback, they got burned more often than not. Senior free safety Derron Smith (5'11" 200 lbs) is carried more than his share of the load last season, with 87 tackles and seven interceptions. Junior strong safety Charles Washington (5'11" 200 lbs) was strong in run support, adding 62 tackles last season. But cornerback is going to be an issue, as two of the top three from last season won't be back.
While a night game in Fresno probably will make the environment a little tougher to play in, it does have the advantage of getting the game out of the heat of the day. The average high for September 13 is 92, so the 7:30 pm Pacific time kickoff should alleviate concerns about conditioning, though. In the end, I suspect that Fresno State's uncertainty on offense should be the biggest factor in this matchup, which should still favor Nebraska.