Eight games into the season, it’s obvious Fresno State has two offensive standouts:
Marteze Waller and Josh Harper.
Both were underutilized during key stretches of Friday night’s 37-27 loss to Boise State at newly christened Albertsons Stadium.
Harper plays receiver, which means he’s dependent on the quarterback getting him the ball. Plus, defenses can double up or roll their coverages toward the lanky senior, making that task even more difficult.
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So there’s a valid reason why Harper only had two catches for 11 yards at halftime before opening the third quarter with a 32-yard touchdown from Brian Burrell.
In Waller’s case, the reasons are a lot less clear.
Fresno State actually played a pretty decent game. The Bulldogs never trailed by more than 10 points and tied the score in the fourth quarter after capitalizing on a fumbled kickoff. They showed fight. Even though the coaching staff kept its most productive player on a short leash.
Late in the first quarter, Waller broke off the run of his life. The junior tailback smashed through a tackle at the line of scrimmage and galloped 76 yards for the Bulldogs’ only first-half touchdown.
“All I saw was blue (turf),” Waller said.
And how did Fresno State’s coaches reward their star tailback for the program’s longest run since Robbie Rouse went 94 yards in 2012?
By sticking him on the bench.
Not just for one play or a series. For the next two drives, the Bulldogs’ best runner stood on the sideline while backup Josh Quezada got the snaps.
When Waller finally returned to the game, he wasn’t even lined up in the backfield.
Instead, Waller was split wide left. Wide wide left. For a pure runner who isn’t all that great of a receiver, it sure seemed a strange place to be.
Following Waller’s 76-yard touchdown, the Bulldogs ran 14 offensive plays until he touched the ball again.
On this night, when Burrell barely completed 50% of his passes, it felt like at least 13 too many.
Afterward, I asked offensive coordinator Dave Schramm for an explanation. He said it was all dictated by Boise State’s defense. After Waller’s touchdown, the Broncos closed off the middle and brought up one of their deep safeties.
“I would love to give Marteze the ball every single play if it makes sense against what they’re doing defensively, but tonight it didn’t,” Schramm said.
“When you’re a spread offensive football team and they’ve got one more guy in the box than you can block it makes no sense to hand the ball off and let that guy make the tackle at the line of scrimmage.”
Of course, that doesn’t explain why Quezada got the ball three times while Waller was on the bench. Twice up the middle and once off right tackle. The three runs gained a grand total of 3 yards.
Here’s what Schramm said to that:
“When you’re in a one-back offense, you get hit every single play. Whether you’re running the football or picking up a blitz every single play you’re taking a shot.
“My philosophy is, in this system, you need two backs because you’ve got to keep them healthy. They can’t take the punishment. I love Marteze, and he runs like he’s 6-4, 280. But he’s not.”
On this night, Waller’s 5-11, 209-pound frame was sturdy enough. He carried 18 times for a career-high 164 yards.
That’s a 9.1-yard average.
“He’s fast, he’s physical and people don’t want to tackle him,” Burrell said.
The same could be said for Broncos tailback Jay Ajayi, listed at 6 feet and 216 pounds.
Ajayi had 30 carries for 158 yards — capped by a 54-yarder that set up the field goal that gave Boise State a late 10-point cushion.
Both backs are similar in size. It’s tough to understand why Ajayi can take the punishment of 30 carries but Waller can’t.
I asked the quiet, soft-spoken Waller if he’d like to carry the ball 30 times.
His answer, “Who wouldn’t?”
Waller initiated Fresno State’s two-play scoring drive that opened the third quarter with a 35-yard burst.
He also fumbled at the end of the run but made the recovery. Fumbles have been somewhat of an issue for him.
Waller also got the ball after the Bulldogs recovered a fumbled kickoff inside the Boise State 5-yard line. He scored from 3 yards out to tie the score 27-27.
So Waller was a big part of Fresno State’s offense. But for this team to have any chance of a November win streak, he needs to be a bigger one.
This isn’t the first time Waller has inexplicably gone MIA.
Last week against UNLV it was pretty much the same. Waller ran the ball well on Fresno State’s first two drives, including a 41-yard scamper, then got replaced by Quezada.
Look, Quezada is a solid back. He blocks well and can catch out of the backfield. But as a runner, he lacks Waller’s power and elusiveness.
I realize the coaching staff likes Quezada. But this is the FBS, not Pop Warner. There’s no place for hurt feelings.
In big games like Friday, you ride your best horses. The Bulldogs left theirs too long in the stable.