Two positives. That’s it. One, obviously, the play of the defense. Two, Fresno State did rebound from a poor first half and scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make its 31-3 victory over Sacramento State look a little more like it should. The score, anyway, though it is questionable whether that one should even count considering the Hornets are a FCS program and had lost their opener to a Division II team.
Quarterback Chason Virgil certainly wasn’t excited about it. “It was us not doing our job, particularly me,” he said. “There were a lot of times that I was just messing up, missing reads, not completing passes. I think that was the biggest thing. Sac State, they did good. They played their game, but we just had a lot of times where one of us just weren’t doing their job.”
Game reps can fix that and, again, the Bulldogs’ quarterback is just a redshirt freshman.
Fresno State has five explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards in its first two games, ranking in a tie for sixth in the Mountain West and 76th in the nation. Boise State leads the conference with 11, and Louisville and South Alabama lead the FBS with 15.
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But the victory over Sacramento State also further exposed a hole in the offense that is growing larger and could cause the Bulldogs a few problems going forward, considering it might not be easy to close with the number of moving parts involved in the equation.
With Virgil, the Bulldogs haven’t stretched the field vertically with any success.
Going into the Sacramento State game, the young quarterback had attempted 88 passes in his career and had just three “explosive” pass plays of 20 or more yards.
By comparison, six quarterbacks who played against Fresno State last season had three or more explosive pass plays in that one game, the list led by Chad Kelly from Ole Miss with six in 25 attempts and Kent Myers from Utah State with five in 25. Don’t just dismiss that, believing the Bulldogs struggled giving up plays over their heads a year ago. They were much better than the year before, 37 allowed down from 54. And, it works the other way, as well. The Bulldogs’ Zack Greenlee had seven explosive pass plays in 35 attempts in a victory at Hawaii and three in 32 attempts in a victory over Abilene Christian. Kilton Anderson had three in a loss to Colorado State, throwing the ball 33 times. They had three between them in 48 passes in a loss at BYU, two by Greenlee and one by Anderson.
Virgil doubled his total with three against the Hornets and now has six in 130 career attempts, but they came when plays were made by receivers Jamire Jordan and KeeSean Johnson and by Virgil escaping pressure and sprinting to his left where he found tight end Chad Olsen for a 31-yard gain. Jordan and Johnson both broke tackles to extend plays for 26 and 24 yards.
The Bulldogs took shots downfield in sudden change-situations right after interceptions by Jamal Ellis in the first quarter and Tyquwan Glass in the fourth but misfired.
We talked about it during the game. We have to do a better job of spreading the field vertically. But you get more of those throws when you have confidence as a play caller that you’re going to hit them and (Saturday) we weren’t really close.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
On the first, Johnson obliterated the cornerback charged with covering him and was running well clear down the left sideline. Virgil missed long with his throw.
It is something the Bulldogs worked with success on the practice field going into the game, but it did not translate for a number of reasons. Poor protection affected timing, which affected throws.
The potential definitely is there. The Bulldogs have had a 100-yard receiver in both of their games – Aaron Peck with 112 at Nebraska and Jordan with 100 against Sacramento State – and Johnson as well as Delvon Hardaway and Olsen have that potential. And the Bulldogs’ quarterback, as well as the offense, is in development.
Derek Carr in his first 88 throws had seven explosive plays of 20 or more yards and had 15 in his first 130, but he also had significant advantages over Virgil. One, Carr threw only 14 passes as a true freshman in 2009 and didn’t face any Power Five conference opponents while Virgil threw 42 more passes in three games that include Ole Miss and Utah. Carr also got off 116 of his first 130 throws as a redshirt sophomore in his third year in the program while Virgil is a redshirt freshman.
But those plays have to be made or at some point opposing defenses, even those with corners ill-suited for life on that island, might start compressing the field and bringing more pressures until they get burned or the Bulldogs’ strike rate improves.
“We have to get better at it,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We have to time it up better. I think we didn’t protect him very well so the timing was off and he probably threw a couple too early.
Sac State, they did good. They played their game, but we just had a lot of times where one of us just weren’t doing their job.
Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil
“It’s something that we have to do a better job of coaching him up on and completing those plays because to make our offense we have to make those explosive plays. I’ll talk to (offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau) about how we do that, but I think he still showed a lot of poise. He wasn’t on his ‘A’ game and he still was able to lead us to a win, and that’s the bottom line.”
Now that was a play – Ellis’ interception came on a screen to the perimeter and afterward he still wasn’t sure exactly how he sliced his way under the blocker outside and between the quarterback and receiver.
All he knew is it was a great call by defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward for the play Sacramento State ran and it was going to look pretty good when they all watched it on film on Sunday.
“We knew they were going to run perimeter screens and stuff like that,” he said. “We knew that was in the game plan for sure, but at that particular moment my instincts just took over and I went for it.
“I couldn’t even tell you how (it happened), I have to watch it for myself because it was a surreal moment, really. I was just hunkered down playing the flat, saw him going in motion. They could have pumped me and went deep, but I just felt the nudge to go for it.”
Making a stand – The Bulldogs’ defense allowed only 185 yards of total offense, 96 rushing and 89 passing. It is the first time they have held an opponent to fewer than 200 total yards since a 24-17 victory over New Mexico State on Nov. 15, 2008, when the Aggies mustered 183 yards.
The superlatives don’t end there …
Senior cornerbacks Jamal Ellis and Tyquwan Glass had interceptions against Sacramento State, only the third time in the past 16 games the Bulldogs have had two or more in one game.
▪ Sacramento State ran just three plays and gained no yards on the Bulldogs’ side of the field, the first two plays after taking possession at the Fresno State 47 on an interception by safety Nick Crouch.
The Hornets’ first play was a run, James Bailey cutting down Ernie Timoteo for no gain. Their second was the outside screen that was blown up and intercepted by Ellis.
They kicked a field goal at the end of the first half on the play after recovering a fumble at the Bulldogs’ 27 on a punt that inadvertently hit Mike Bell when he was engaged with a blocker and making his way up the left sideline.
▪ Sacramento State made only seven first downs – Fresno State had not allowed fewer than 10 in a game going back through the 2000 season.
▪ The Hornets ran the ball 33 times, gaining 2 yards or less 15 times. They also had 16 drives in the game and the Bulldogs had them three-and-out eight times.
▪ Quarterback Nick Ketteringham came into the game having completed 63.8 percent of his passes over his past five games but was only 9 of 25 (36 percent) against the Bulldogs.
Fresno State last held a team under 36 percent on Dec. 3, 2010, in a 25-23 victory over Illinois, the Illini completing only 7 of 20 passes (35 percent).
▪ The Bulldogs yielded only 3.18 yards per play, their fewest allowed since holding San Jose State to 200 yards on 68 plays, 2.94 per play, in a 24-10 victory on Nov. 21, 2008.
Notable – The Bulldogs were down two starters on defense in inside linebacker Jeff Camilli and nose guard Malik Forrester, both of whom suffered lower leg injuries in the opener at Nebraska. DeRuyter said had a FBS team been in town both could have played. …
▪ With 100-yard receiving games by Peck and Jordan in the first two games of the season, Fresno State already has surpassed its number from last season and is only one off matching their total from the 2014 season. Jordan had a 102-yard game last season against Utah, and in 2014 Da’Mari Scott had 102 yards against Southern Utah and Josh Harper had 187 at UNLV and 131 at Boise State. …
▪ Field position and punter Blake Cusick played large in the Bulldogs’ victory. Cusick punted the ball eight times for an average of only 35.8 yards, but he had two boomers of 50-plus including his first, a 59-yarder that was down at the Hornets’ 1-yard line. The redshirt freshman pinned Sacramento State inside its own 20 six times including the 1-yard line, the 6-yard line and the 3-yard line.
“That really helped,” DeRuyter said. “That first one, that was a terrific kick. People definitely saw the leg strength that he has.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada