FRESNO STATE (0-1) VS. SACRAMENTO STATE (0-1)
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: 93 degrees, clear
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Keys to victory
1 Look sharp – Fresno State took a step forward from 2015 in an opening loss at Nebraska, but it has to prove the good that was seen in that performance to be real. Against an FCS opponent in Sacramento State, the Bulldogs need to execute at a high level and the final score is not the determinant. They beat Abilene Christian by 21 last season, but were less than inspiring in getting there. Fresno State completed 48.9 percent of its passes, averaging a very poor 4.8 yards per attempt. The overall execution must be much better to sustain the narrative that they are better this season than last year’s 3-9 team.
2 Run for days – The Bulldogs get an A for effort at Nebraska, particularly with a young offensive line that had a combined 24 returning starts. But the results were not there – in rushing for 31 yards on 26 plays, the longest by a running back was all of 5 yards. Just by accident, there should be a double-digit run somewhere. Southern Mississippi last year rushed for 11 yards on 23 plays against the Cornhuskers, yet had a run of 17 yards. The Hornets are very young in the front seven – not a single senior starter – and are not particularly big. Their starting ends go 230 and 245 pounds. A struggle is trouble.
3 Light ’em up – Ejiro Ederaine left Fresno State with 21 career sacks, sixth in school history. The guy could play. But here is a chilling stat for the Bulldogs on defense. Over the past six games, they have made just one sack that the former all-conference outside linebacker didn’t at least share. In six games. Brandon Hughes had one last season at Hawaii. That’s it. The biggest problem at Nebraska was against the run, but Sacramento State is likely to put the ball up a few times and the Bulldogs need to dial up the pressure and put the Hornets’ quarterback down a few times.
Fresno State was feeling much better about itself coming back from Nebraska, even with a loss in tow. The Bulldogs stood up, counterpunched and landed some blows against a Power Five conference program, something they hadn’t really accomplished in a 3-9 season a year ago.
But they still were beaten 43-10, and that more than anything else is what counts.
They need to play better, certainly more consistently. And with an FCS opponent coming into Bulldog Stadium on Saturday in Sacramento State, which knows a little something about losing to a team from a lower division, having dropped its opener to Division II Western Oregon, the Hornets can be both an easy mark and a very difficult challenge to playing well.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter has kept the message on point.
“It’s not about our opponent. It never is any week, and this week in particular, because it’s going to be a very different scenario than a week ago,” DeRuyter said. “People are going to say, ‘They’re an FCS team; you should win.’ But it doesn’t matter who we play. We need to play to our standard, and if we play passionate, hard-nosed football, the score takes care of itself one way or the other. We’re not concerned about our opponent. Not to disparage them in any way, but it’s about us.”
That standard was set in 2012-13 when the Bulldogs won 20 games and two Mountain West Conference championships. DeRuyter admitted it has been too long since they have been there.
“No doubt,” he said. “It has been a long time since we’ve played up to our potential. You never play right at it. You’re always going to be a little short of it, but we have to be a lot closer than we’ve been.
“But this group, I think, has a really high ceiling. We approached it at times last week, but we weren’t consistent enough, and that has to be the charge for our guys, to play consistently at the level that we’re capable of.”
Dropping a hint –Wideout Delvon Hardaway didn’t get a lot of run in the loss at Nebraska, but DeRuyter suggested the speedy junior could be more involved this week.
“He’s competing very well, outside,” DeRuyter said. “We have to get him more touches and more reps than we did last week, and that could be a spot.”
Hardaway, when right – and he is this season after working his way back from a knee injury a year ago – is a downfield threat that the Bulldogs have lacked. When he was a redshirt freshman in 2014, three of his 23 receptions went for 30 or more yards, including a 32-yard touchdown against Southern Utah.
Among the outside receivers, KeeSean Johnson has 45 career receptions with none of 30 or more yards and Aaron Peck has 56 with five of 30 or more yards.
Hot streak – Sacramento State quarterback Nate Ketteringham, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, was to redshirt last season until injuries pushed him into the Hornets’ lineup.
He made his first start in a 44-0 loss at Southern Utah, but in the five games since, four last season and one this season, he has completed 63.8 percent of his passes (143 of 224), is averaging 325.4 passing yards per game and has 14 touchdown passes with four interceptions.
The competition, though, has not been quite what it will be Saturday at Bulldog Stadium.
Ketteringham has faced Idaho State, Cal Poly, Northern Arizona, UC Davis and this season Western Oregon. The Hornets are 1-4 in those games.
Isn’t that special? – The Bulldogs took a look at different personnel on their kickoff return team Wednesday, one through 11, hoping to generate more than the 20.4 yards on five returns they had at Nebraska – Johnson (two for 43 yards), DeShawn Potts (one for 32), Dejonte O’Neal (one for 14) and Anthoula Tank Kelly (one for 13).
Dave Ungerer, the running backs coach-special teams coordinator, did feel they were close.
“I like all of our guys,” he said. “I like O’Neal. I think Tank could be good – he didn’t have a lot of reps because he missed a bunch of camp. I probably put him in a bad predicament in that situation. I put him in there and had a guy go cross-field on us. But we really blocked it fairly well. Look at the replay of that, we had a kick-out (block), and if we do a little bit better, that thing is going to go 40 or 50 yards.
“First game, and we’re trying to find the right pieces to the puzzle. We have a lot of talent – it’s just finding it and putting it in the right places.”
Sacramento State gave up a punt return for a touchdown in its opening loss to Western Oregon as well as a kickoff return that went for 75 yards.
Honoring officers – Fresno State will have a moment of reflection before the national anthem to honor Fresno County correctional officers Juanita Davila and Toamalama Scanlan, who were shot a week ago during a confrontation at Fresno’s main jail. Scanlan played for the Bulldogs in 1996.
“Spending time to honor true heroes in front of our home crowd was an easy decision to make,” said Paul Ladwig, senior associate athletics director for external relations. “The two correctional officers came to work that day expecting to go home to their families. Tragically, that did not happen. We wanted a moment to show them this Valley cares about our neighbors, the same people that keep us safe. We will also take the time to reflect on Sept. 11 and remember the meaning of that day.”
Et cetera – The opening week of the college football season saw four FCS teams beat FBS teams – Albany took out Buffalo 22-16, Richmond beat Virginia 38-20, Northern Iowa beat Iowa State 25-20, and Eastern Washington beat Washington State 45-42. The Hornets have played an FBS opponent every year since 2002 and have victories at Colorado in 2012 and at Oregon State in 2011.
▪ The Bulldogs are 26-1 against FCS programs dating to 1982, including 4-0 under DeRuyter, and those victories have come by an average of 26 points.
▪ In 2012-13, with Derek Carr at quarterback, the Bulldogs converted 30.8 percent of their third-down plays (8 of 26) against FCS opponents. In 2014-15, in games started by Brian Burrell and Zack Greenlee, they converted 47.1 percent (16 of 34). Go figure.
▪ The Hornets had 10 players catch at least one pass in the opening loss to Western Oregon.
▪ The Bulldogs allowed only three explosive plays of 20 or more yards, two passes and one run, at Nebraska. The last time they allowed fewer big plays against an FBS opponent was in a 24-13 victory over San Diego State in 2014, when they yielded just one.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada