If you are wondering how exactly Zack Greenlee threw six touchdown passes in Fresno State’s 42-14 victory at Hawaii on Saturday night, you’re probably not alone.
The five other quarterbacks in the FBS to throw six TD passes in a game this season are all much more accomplished passers, averaging between 275.1 and 415.1 yards per game, and yeah, they might be wondering how Greenlee crashed their party, too.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk went into the weekend leading the nation averaging 415.1 passing yards per game. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson was at the top of the touchdown passes list with 36. Baylor quarterback Seth Russell is out for the season after suffering a neck injury but in seven games had a passing efficiency rating of 189.72, which is tops in the nation.
Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty was leading the nation in completion percentage at 72.7. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen was in the top 25 nationally in most of those categories, and his six touchdown passes came on the road in a Southeastern Conference game at Ole Miss.
6Quarterbacks to throw for six touchdowns in a game this season, most recently by Fresno State’s Zack Greenlee in Saturday’s 42-14 win at Hawaii
Now, there is Greenlee, who lost his starting job twice this season but against Hawaii hit a colossal growth spurt at the right time.
“I was proud of him,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “I think their plan was to try to get in his head and rough him up, and at first it took him awhile to get settled in, but then once he took a couple of shots it’s like he responded, and I think him hanging in there and responding the way he did inspired our guys.”
That, really, was the difference.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Dave Schramm knew the Bulldogs would have to throw to beat Hawaii because that has been the challenge just about every week, and it has been a somewhat dubious proposition. Opposing defenses were dropping an extra defender into the box, bringing one more than the Bulldogs could block and daring them to make plays through the air.
But the Bulldogs (3-7, 2-5 Mountain West Conference) liked their matchups outside with Da’Mari Scott, Delvon Hardaway, KeeSean Johnson and Josiah Blandin and inside with Jamire Jordan and tight end Chad Olsen.
If they could handle the Rainbow Warriors’ blitzes and complete passes, they had a chance to make plays. Still, what were the chances? Greenlee went into the week of practice back in competition with redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson, and they had hit on only 50 and 47 percent of their passes.
Through the week, it became clearer it would be Greenlee, who had not started since an Oct. 3 loss at San Diego State, the game in which the Bulldogs generated only 89 yards.
“Zack has got a little bit more of a history and a handle on getting us into the right protection and check us into the right protection,” Schramm said. “We knew if we could get protected, we had a chance to hit some throws. We just had to figure out who could handle it the best and who can operate the offense in the most efficient manner possible. That’s where it all starts for us.”
And that’s where the Bulldogs had so many problems, struggling through operator error at the quarterback position through a 2-7 season. Until Saturday.
The Bulldogs did not start well, gaining just 30 yards on their first three possessions that ended on downs, with a punt and again on downs. Greenlee was not quite right.
“We were getting the blitz picked up, but his eyes, he got into a guessing game a little bit as to what he thought was going to happen instead of what he was seeing was going to happen,” Schramm said. “We had to calm him down on the sideline and talk to him about staying within the framework of the offense and going through his read progressions.”
After that, Greenlee started to get hit. On the Bulldogs’ first scoring drive, Hawaii (2-9, 0-7) was flagged three times for roughing the passer, and six of its seven personal foul penalties in the game were for late hits on the quarterback. Through the first nine games, that had always been a problem.
“You watch how he has been this year, the San Diego State game and the time that he’s been in, he has been somewhat skittish back there,” Schramm said. “Being a quarterback is not anything like being a pitcher – there are guys coming after you when you’re trying to throw the football.”
But Greenlee played through it this time, and therein lies the answer.
In the third quarter, he was poked in the eye when absorbing the fifth roughing-the-passer penalty.
The thing that was really good was just to see the look in his eyes on the sideline and his understanding of what was going on and his understanding of what he had to do to defeat what was happening. He was 100 percent in.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Dave Schramm on quarterback Zack Greenlee handling the early pressure from Hawaii before exploding for six TD passes
“He looked like he was a boxer who got tattooed in the eye,” DeRuyter said. “I thought we needed to have one of those corner guys to fix him. We needed a cut man. I looked at him on the sideline and said, ‘Zack, are you OK? Do we need to get Kilton going?’ and he said ‘No, let me go.’
“He was determined, and I hadn’t seen that kind of fight from him in any game. He was almost defiant. I think he had those competitive juices going and wanted to show them he couldn’t be knocked out.”
Greenlee was out for one play.
“As you grow, one of the things you have to learn is you have to stand in there and take some hits and make some throws, because people are going to pressure you,” Schramm said. “You have to prove to the team that you’re playing that you can stand in there and make some throws so they quit pressuring. That’s something that has come a little slower for Zack.
“Early in the game, he was getting pressured and running out of the pocket and then he got hit a couple of times, got a couple of personal foul penalties on their part, and eventually, you realize I have to stand in here and make these throws and not only prove to my team that they can count on me but prove to that team I’m playing against that if you keep doing that I’m going to hurt you.”
Fresno State scored on three possessions in a row and four of five to end the first half, on a two-yard pass to Blandin, a 22-yard pass to Olsen and 28- and 25-yard passes to Scott.
Greenlee threw his fifth touchdown pass in the third quarter, deftly avoiding the rush to hit a six-yard pass to running back Marteze Waller.
The sixth came on the first play of the fourth quarter, a 64-yard strike to Jordan.
“We went out there and (the wide receivers) made some great plays,” Greenlee said. “For me to just sit in the pocket and get it to them and watch them go to work is awesome. It’s a great game, and when it goes like this, it’s just beautiful.”
Whether it’s a one-game anomaly or the start of a three-game progression remains to be seen. The Bulldogs are at BYU on Saturday and will see many of the same things from the Cougars’ defense. But there at least is a chance a piece finally fell into place for this football team.
“The thing that was really good was just to see the look in his eyes on the sideline and his understanding of what was going on and his understanding of what he had to do to defeat what was happening,” Schramm said. “He was 100 percent in. He was ready to go. The late hits and all that stuff didn’t bother him. He kept his poise. Hopefully, he made that step.
“He probably proved to himself and a lot of the guys on the team that he can stand in there, make those throws and hurt teams that want to try to pressure him.”
Et cetera – Sophomore cornerback Malcolm Washington was credited with four pass breakups, his first of the season and a season high for the Bulldogs. Jamal Ellis went into the game with five and had two more for a team-high seven, with Washington vaulting into a tie for second with cornerback Tyquwan Glass.
▪ Fresno State had eight plays of 20 or more yards (one run and seven passes), the most they have had in any game this season. The Bulldogs had only eight in a four-game stretch against FBS teams at the start of the season.
▪ Greenlee saw his passing efficiency rating jump to 138.37 from 119.26. The third-year sophomore has not played in enough games to be ranked, but the 138.37 would put him third in the Mountain West Conference behind Boise State’s Brett Rypien (143.01) and Colorado State’s Nick Stevens (142.67).
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE (3-7) AT BYU (7-3)
Vitals: Noon Saturday in Provo, Utah
TV: None (online on ESPN3)
Radio: KFIG (AM 940); KGST (AM 1600)