Without some very important pieces from a year ago, Fresno State has had to remake its defense a bit. Finding an identity was an early priority, and the Bulldogs are closer to that now after some growing pains.
Inexperience has hurt and it is impossible to ignore some of the big plays they have allowed -- be it a missed tackle or blown coverage or a bad run fit.
They are the primary reasons that the numbers, ahead of next Saturday's home date with UNLV after this week's bye, don't look much like they did a year ago.
Fresno State is allowing 444.8 yards per game to rank 97th in total defense and 33.4 points per game to rank 100th among bowl subdivision teams.
The Bulldogs have allowed 34 plays of 20 or more yards, ranking 117th.
But there have been strong stretches, too, and defensive coordinator Nick Toth said they have a better idea where they are as a defense, what will work and what might not going into the second half of the season.
Still to come are matchups against some of the better offensive teams on the schedule, including Wyoming and the tricky option of New Mexico.
In the past two games, victories at Hawaii and Idaho, Fresno State has racked up 23 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks and forced seven turnovers, all key components in the turnaround a year ago that helped the Bulldogs win a Mountain West Conference championship.
Here is how Toth evaluates the state of the defense.
Question: In terms of figuring out your group, building an identity of what this defense is this season, you've got to think you're a bit closer to that after the past two games ...
Answer: Yeah, you know, we're still raw in coverage a little bit, our pressure package as it gets deeper is having more effect and our four-man rush is getting better. We're figuring out who can rush and we're getting those guys in position better. The other thing is we're figuring out our substitution, our rotation, which is really hard to start the year.
You start the year and you're trying to just play your best guys all the time. It takes you some time to figure out who the best mix is -- maybe getting a fresh guy in there in certain situations is better than playing a guy that might be the best guy but he's a little more tired.
I think we've figured that out better the past two games. We're able to spot-play guys a little better because we know our talent level. It's one thing to look good in camp, but then you have to show up in games. You have to find ways to play guys in individual situations, so we've done a better job of that. This off week is going to be good for that, too.
I like our physicality. We're attacking the football. We just have to get better at coverage, and never forget that our identity is to stop the run. All this pass stuff and sack stuff is cute, but we have to stop the run.
How do you feel that has come along? Early in the year there were some issues with the run fits and missing tackles, giving up some big runs ...
I like us stopping the run. The thing that bothers me the most right now is the quarterback run game and the scramble stuff. I don't think we're where we need to be with that yet. Not schematically, just guys reacting to it, guys understanding rush lanes and when they can come out of coverage and when they can't. But I like us fitting the run. This team we're getting to play, UNLV, is going to run the ball as much as anybody. I like the way we're going to fit it.
We have to keep trying to eliminate the big play. The tackle that we miss can't be missed. I think that's been the thing for us all year. I think we're in the right spot, we just have to finish the play.
I like where we're at with our run defense right now, I really do. We've got to make sure we're working the right guys. Our twos have got to get better and we've got to keep putting those guys that can stop the run in that position, and on throw situations helping the guys that need to get in the game.
Is the coverage part of that equation? With the big plays, do you feel like you need to start trying to cover up some things if you can? Pressure more, whatever ...
Shoot no. We have to cover. We have to do our job. We just have to stop blowing assignments. A guy that is supposed to be a deep quarter player has to play the deep quarter. I think we're as good as we were a year ago in coverage, I just think we're doing it with some guys that are inexperienced and some guys that have mistakes when the ball is in the air.
It bothers me. I'm not concerned about it, because I know how to fix it.
So, it's really just playing ball ...
That's exactly what it is. And, they're going to make some plays, too. That's part of the football game. When the other guy is a 6-foot-3 or 6-2 football player, he's going to make some plays sometimes.
You have to limit how many plays you let them make, and I have to make calls that reflect that, too, that sometimes are more conservative, and make guys beat you consistently throwing a 5-yard ball as opposed to a 25-yard ball.
So in terms of knowing what you have and knowing what you are at this point, it sounds like you're still working through a few things. Close, but ...
I feel decent about it. The next few weeks are big. UNLV is going to be a good test to figure out if we can deal with a balanced offense, because they're a run team and a pass team.
The team we just played (Idaho), they wanted to throw the ball in a controlled fashion. They really weren't strong at running the ball. The team before that (Hawaii), it was just a chuck-and-duck thing at the end and these next few teams are more balanced, so we have to be a balanced defense.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or @rkuwada on Twitter. Read his daily Fresno State updates at fresnobee.com/bulldogs.