The Bulldogs will hope their renaissance begins against a woeful FCS foe.
The Jeff Tedford era at Fresno State begins on September 2nd, and it’s perhaps fitting that his Bulldogs will begin 2017 against a Cardinals team looking to regain some traction of its own. After climbing above .500 for the first time since joining the Southland Conference in 2015, Incarnate Word slipped to 3-8 last season.
UIW has yet to build a consistent winner at the FCS level, and they also haven’t fared well in two games against FBS competition. However, a veteran team on both sides of the ball could surprise if the ‘Dogs sleepwalk too long through the opener, as they did a year ago.
Location: San Antonio, TX
Mascot: Red, the Cardinal
Conference: Southland (FCS)
2016 Record: 3-8 (3-6 in conference)
Head Coach: Larry Kennan (19-36 overall, 17-27 FCS). In five seasons as Cardinals head coach, Kennan has yet to string together consecutive winning campaigns. His teams have yo-yoed from ninth to fourth to eighth in three seasons within the Southland, but UIW lost three games by ten points or less in 2016 and also won two straight to finish the year.
QB Taylor Laird
UIW is in the midst of a quarterback battle that’s likely to last well into the fall, and Kennan has acknowledged a willingness to rotate at the position, but the senior Laird might get the longest look as the only QB with game experience last year. Granted, he wasn’t great – his 8.9 yards per attempt were offset by a 52.3% completion rate – but his main competition consists of a JuCo transfer (Sean Brophy) and a redshirt freshman (David Johnson). The Cardinals did finish fifth among Southland teams in passing yards per game, so an improvement could make them a force.
OT Draven Taylor
After transferring from New Mexico in 2014, Taylor has been a steady presence along an often porous offensive line: UIW’s 32 sacks allowed ranked last in the Southland, as did their 117.9 rushing yards per game.
CB Robert Hayes Jr.
The sophomore earned a starting role in the Cardinals’ last two games of the season and, remarkably, collected the only interception UIW had in 2016. He also had nine pass breakups, making the 6-foot-2 Hayes a potentially tough matchup for Fresno State’s receivers.
WR Kody Edwards
Despite UIW’s offensive inconsistencies, Edwards proved a surprisingly adept deep threat for the Cardinals. He only caught 39 passes last year, but he averaged 18.3 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns.
DE Corey Lee
After missing all of 2015 because of injury, the former FCS All-American will enter 2017 as UIW’s returning leader in tackles for loss. And even though he didn’t collect a sack last season, Lee had five as a second-team all-Southland defender in 2014.
By just about every measure, UIW was hampered by a lackluster offense. The Cardinals converted just 31.6% of third down opportunities and averaged just five yards per play. There is hope that it could be better, however: Replacing three-year starter Trent Brittain and his 48% completion rate probably won’t be that difficult, and their two leading returning rushers did average 6.9 yards per carry (albeit with 74 combined carries). Edwards is a established big-play weapon and Jamari Gilbert (17.9 YPC) wasn’t far behind. With Fresno State’s turnover on defense, the Cardinals could move the ball if they find a quarterback.
UIW had serious problems stopping the pass in 2016, allowing a Southland-worst 64.8% completion rate with an opponents’ QB rating of 161, in essence turning every foe into Sam Darnold. Hayes and the Williamses, JaMarkese and Jeilyn, should be able to turn a few more of their pass breakups – 27 between the three of them – into interceptions, which could make a difference if the Bulldogs’ passing game continues to be erratic.
It's hard to look much worse than the Bulldogs did most weeks last fall, but there's certainly a talent gap that should make this a comfortable win. However, the final score in last year's lone win against Sacramento State, a similarly bad FCS team, belies the fact that it was 10-3 after three quarters. If the potential actually translates to results this time around, this could be conservative. Fresno State 35, Incarnate Word 17