Fresno State Takes On Yet Another Playoff Team From Last Year
Bulldogs non-conference schedule does not let up with this game against Washington
After traveling to Tuscaloosa, the Bulldogs must wrangle with another playoff contender in the Pacific Northwest.
There aren’t many teams on the shortlist for a College Football Playoff berth from preseason to preseason, but the Washington Huskies outperformed many expectations in 2016 and the case can be made they’ll be even better this fall.
On the heels of an unforgiving trip to Tuscaloosa, this is bad news for the Fresno State Bulldogs.
Chris Petersen’s third UW squad represents his best effort in a decade, spearheaded by a substantial leap forward under center and a deep and dangerous defense. And in spite of losing key pieces on both sides of the ball, the familiar foe on the home sideline will give Jeff Tedford’s Bulldogs everything they can handle.
Location: Seattle, WA
Mascot: Harry the Husky
2016 Record: 12-2 (8-1 in conference); lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 24-7.
Head Coach: Chris Petersen (119-26, 27-14 at UW). Long considered one of the nation’s best coaches, Petersen’s 2016 was the Huskies’ best year had since their 2000 Rose Bowl triumph. Their berth in the College Football Playoff was no fluke, either, as they dominated Pac-12 competition by an average margin of 43-19. The university rewarded the 52-year-old coach with an extension in April, and Petersen has enough talent returning to make another run.
Jake Browning, quarterback. Any player with Heisman-level credentials perhaps states the obvious as far as key players are concerned, but Browning will have to lead the Washington offense without NFL first-rounder John Ross in 2017. Chances are the junior QB won’t throw 43 touchdowns again, but he’s a strong bet to match the 8.8 yards per attempt he had last fall, more than good enough to test a Fresno State secondary replacing three starters.
Miles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, running back. Does Browning have the best running back duo in the Pac-12 behind him? The duo of Gaskin and Coleman combined for 6.3 yards per carry over 351 carries, and it’s not inconceivable that Gaskin could see more action as a pass-catcher, either, to offset Ross’s production after compiling a 79% catch rate in 2016.
Taylor Rapp, safety. Replacing an All-American safety like Budda Baker isn’t an easy task, but you can do a lot worse than tapping the 2016 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Rapp grabbed four interceptions in his first season in the Northwest and he’s already earning preseason all-conference accolades for his sophomore year.
Chico McClatcher, wide receiver. Dante Pettis is likely to see his workload increase after Ross’s departure, but McClatcher might be a more critical component of the Huskies offense. Among those who grabbed 30 passes last season, McClatcher finished in the top twenty nationally with a 18.5 yards per catch average. He’ll be an elusive weapon for UW.
Vita Vea, defensive tackle. The Huskies front seven projects as one of the nation’s best, but the 6-foot-5, 344-pound junior should be a focal point for Fresno State’s offensive protections. He had five sacks a year ago, tops among UW returners, and he could be very disruptive in the middle if the Bulldogs’ attack is slow to gain traction.
Even though the Huskies lose their most dynamic playmaker, Washington should once more possess one of the nation’s best attacks. Browning ranked 7th nationally in quarterback rating and 11th by yards per attempt and, as a unit, UW finished 10th in yards per play and within the top twenty of 20-plus yard gains.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Browning was much more human in obvious passing situations: His completion percentage dropped to just 52.1%, and he threw six of his nine interceptions, on third down.
By just about every metric, Washington was scary good on defense in 2016: 91 tackles for loss, 40 sacks, 4.61 yards per play allowed, 30.6% of third downs converted… you get the idea.
The defensive backfield should be in good hands even after losing Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones to the NFL, but expect some regression in turnover margin, anyway, as they’ve swung from +12 to +5 to +18 in Petersen’s three years at the helm. Also keep an eye on who steps up to reproduce last year’s pass rush: Baker, plus departed lineman Elijah Qualls and linebackers Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis, combined for 17 sacks.
Playing one Playoff-caliber team is tough enough, but facing two in back-to-back weeks is just asking for trouble. This is not to say the Bulldogs won’t give a better showing than they have in the big games of the past few years, but the talent base between these two teams is simply too great to entertain any realistic chance of an upset.
Washington 45, Fresno State 20.