Fresno State offensive-line coach Mark Weber grades his group each week on effort, on targeting or assignment and on technique.
But in a season-opening loss at Nebraska, the Bulldogs did their best work in the margins, with a mindset that will prove useful moving forward, particularly for tackles Christian Cronk and David Patterson. Both were big question marks on the line.
Cronk, a sophomore transfer from Riverside City College, was playing in his first major-college game, in front of 90,000 fans at Memorial Stadium and against a Power Five opponent that a year ago had one of the better rushing defenses in the nation. He didn’t flinch, wasn’t at all nervous. He said he pretty much hibernated the night before the game: “I slept for nine or 10 hours.”
Patterson, a fourth-year junior, was making his first career start after playing primarily on special teams a year ago, and he had yet to exude a requisite mean streak. He did against the Cornhuskers, mixing it up start to finish.
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“I knew in the back of my head it was there, but it’s good to show everyone else,” he said. “I just had to put it out there.”
It definitely brought everybody’s confidence up. Nebraska is a Big Ten team, they’re a tough defense, and it shows that we can play with anyone.
Fresno State right tackle David Patterson
The results, obviously, were not what they wanted – a 43-10 loss on a night the Bulldogs’ offensive line struggled on inside-zone runs in getting to the second level to attack linebackers. Fresno State generated 31 yards on 26 rushing plays – an average of 1.2 yards per play.
Cronk and Patterson also were flagged for false starts on a critical third-quarter series on which the Bulldogs took possession on the plus-side of the field, down 21-10.
But Fresno State did begin to answer one of its biggest preseason questions – there were only 24 returning starts in the offensive-line group, seventh fewest in the nation.
“Both David and Christian have some work to do with their technique, but I thought overall, competitively, they both played probably beyond expectations,” coach Tim DeRuyter said.
“We played against a really good front in a hostile environment and went with a silent count – now we had a couple of false starts that we have to get cleaned up – but as far as protecting (quarterback Chason Virgil), I thought they both did a fantastic job. There was only one blitz that hit us that we didn’t identify and let a guy go free. But other than that, they were tracking to the right guys and really held up.”
Fresno State has not had a rushing touchdown in its past three games against Power Five opponents. The Bulldogs averaged 2.97 yards on 107 rushing plays at Ole Miss, against Utah and at Nebraska.
Weber said “there were a lot of good things,” but will look for improved execution going forward.
“We have to execute better in the run game, but I was really pleased with the mindset the guys came in with and the way they battled through the whole game,” Weber said. “It was good, but we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. That’s the thing that excites me. I mean, they just barely got a glimpse. But that isn’t what we’re going to put on the field next week and the week after and the week after. They’re getting the idea.”
With center Jacob Vazquez and right guard Micah St Andrew, that was expected. They played a lot last season, with Vazquez starting five games at center and two at right guard and St. Andrew five at right guard. Left guard Aaron Mitchell had 12 of those 24 returning starts, the most in the group.
Cronk and Patterson, who had been working with the first-team offense at left and right tackle since the first week of spring practices, had the most ground to cover. Weber saw what he needed for starters.
There was only one blitz that hit us that we didn’t identify and let a guy go free. But other than that, they were tracking to the right guys.
Coach Tim DeRuyter, on the Bulldogs’ offensive-line play at Nebraska
“There were times where we would knock a guy down and go after him and guys were looking for work and David was doing it as much as anybody and Christian, I mean, the last game he played, I don’t know who it was, Mt. San Antonio College maybe,” Weber said.
“That’s a little different deal. It was fun to see them improve from where they were Day One to now, but we still have a ways to go.”
Weber said it’s a process, but if the game at Nebraska is any barometer, the Bulldogs could end up well ahead of where they were a year ago, when they were 11th of 12 in the Mountain West in rushing offense.
“It puts on film for our opponents who we are,” Patterson said. “It shows them that we’re physical and we go and play until the whistle blows.
"It definitely brought everybody’s confidence up. Nebraska is a Big Ten team, they’re a tough defense, and it shows that we can play with anyone.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. SACRAMENTO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 0-1, Hornets 0-1
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Sacramento opened with a 38-30 home loss to Western Oregon, with Hornets sophomore Nate Ketteringham throwing three touchdown passes with two interceptions.