Fresno State, off to a 1-2 start in 2016, faces Tulsa in a nonconference football game Saturday at Bulldog Stadium.
TULSA AT FRESNO STATE
Saturday: 1:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
Records: Golden Hurricane 2-1, Bulldogs 1-2
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Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: Sunny, 81 degrees
Keys to victory
1 Tackle – That was on the list last week at Toledo, when the Bulldogs didn’t tackle well at all while losing badly. Fresno State counted 37 whiffs, a ridiculously high number. Do that again and the Golden Hurricane will pile up points. Tulsa will be pressing tempo from the start – no checking with the sidelines, no searching to find the best matchups. It’s going to go and go until it hits the end zone or the Bulldogs make it stop. If they can make it stop.
2 Sustain a drive – The Bulldogs went three-and-out 10 times in 15 drives last week and had 13 series that took less than two minutes off the game clock. That is a bad look, and it also puts the defense in a difficult spot. It was on the field for 83 plays while the Fresno State offense had 53 snaps, which put some younger players on the field and no doubt played a part in a rough showing. Quarterback Chason Virgil, the offensive line and every other position groups need to put the pieces together.
3 Get off the field – Until last week, Fresno State had been solid defending third-down plays. Its first two opponents, Nebraska and Sacramento State, were a combined 8 of 27 (29.6 percent). Tulsa has struggled there, converting 35.6 percent of those plays to rank 10th of 12 in the American Athletic Conference. It is averaging 1.1 yards on 19 third-down runs and has completed 53.8 percent of its third-down throws. The Bulldogs just have to get the Golden Hurricane there.
Fresno State did a lot of live work in practice this week, trying to get players on both sides of the football more comfortable with plays, adjustments, techniques, coverages, tackling, blocking – all of the above and more – under gamelike conditions.
How or why that had slipped after a solid opener at Nebraska is elusive.
But it had resulted in tentative play. The players realized it needed to be fixed. They’ll be in prove-it mode Saturday against Tulsa, but recognizing the problem is at least a good start.
“The focus this week is on the details, our fundamentals,” right guard Micah St. Andrew said. “We’re working on playing fast, getting off the ball and doing what we need to do.
“Slowly but surely, we’re trusting (our technique). It’s going to have to grow in ourselves, to trust it more, but we’ll get there. The margin of error is very slim, but we’re understanding better what we need to do and how we need to play.”
The live work in practice, coach Tim DeRuyter said, is expected to help a line that has struggled to push forward in the running game and also at times in pass protection.
Fresno State is last in the Mountain West Conference in rushing offense at 2.9 yards per play and 94 yards per game and 11th of 12 in sacks allowed with 3.7 per game.
Running those plays successfully on the practice field should bring some confidence, and it will be a matter of carrying it onto the field.
“Definitely,” St. Andrew said. “You don’t want to go into a test not knowing what’s on the test. We just have to study up, understand. We’re trying to play less tentative, play faster and understand the defense that we’re going up against.”
Help yourself, not the other guys – Fresno State was turnover-free at Toledo, one of the few positives from that loss. It hasn’t played back-to-back games without a turnover since 2013, in games at Wyoming and against New Mexico, but the Bulldogs and quarterback Chason Virgil should be leery of Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane has picked off three passes this season and returned two for touchdowns. Over its past nine games, Tulsa has returned six interceptions for scores.
Yikes, that is not good – The Bulldogs have not beaten a nonconference Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since Oct. 15, 2013, when Derek Carr and Davante Adams led them to a 61-14 rout at Idaho.
Fresno State, which has wins over Football Championship Subdivision schools in Southern Utah, Abilene Christian and Sacramento State in that stretch, has lost eight in a row against FBS competition. None of those games has been particularly close, whether playing a Power Five, Group of Five or independent opponent.
The average margin of defeat in those losses is 36.3 points, including this season at Nebraska (43-10) and Toledo (52-17).
Slim and trim – The Bulldogs pared down the game plan on offense this week, allowing players to focus more on the detail of what they need to get done on every play against whatever Tulsa will throw at them.
“It will help, definitely,” senior wideout Aaron Peck said. “Focusing more on what we do, getting different looks against the plays that we run and just being familiar with what the defense will throw at us, I think cutting down the playbook will help us a lot.
“Different coverages, different blitzes, different fronts, everybody will be comfortable no matter how the defense shifts, moves, whatever.”
Follow the script – The Bulldogs typically have a script for their first 10 to 20 offensive plays, which one would think would give them a chance to get the detail there correct and fine-tuned during the week in practice.
The problem in their loss at Toledo, as DeRuyter said, is you don’t script for second-and-15.
“We have to play better on first down,” he said. “That’s where it starts. If you don’t have an effective first down it’s hard to get into any rhythm as a play-caller.
“We didn’t convert a third down, but the majority of those were third-and-very-long. The one that was reasonable was the first one of the game, it was third-and-3 and we were inches short, and that’s what this game comes down to. We have got to fight for those inches and get that first down. Now you have the defense on its heels, you get into a rhythm and go. Instead, we don’t, we’re punting to midfield and it starts the downhill slide.”
Et cetera – Running back Bryson Oglesby is not expected to play against Tulsa, but is nearing a return from a knee injury suffered in spring practices. The redshirt freshman was in contact this week, participating in the live run drills Tuesday and Wednesday. It is expected he will be ready for the Mountain West opener next week at UNLV.
▪ Fresno State has yet to score on its opening drive of a game or of the second half. In six drives, the Bulldogs have three first downs – all in the opening drive at Nebraska.
▪ Strange but true: Tulsa is the first team to play in five consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games, between 1942 and 1946 playing in the Sun, Sugar, Sugar, Orange and Oil.
▪ The Bulldogs’ win-loss record when not turning over the football under DeRuyter? It’s only 7-5.
▪ DeRuyter and Tulsa coach Phillip Montgomery matched up when they were in the Big 12 Conference, DeRuyter as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Montgomery as the offensive coordinator at Baylor. The Aggies gave up a lot of yards in their two meetings, in 2010 and 2011, allowing 503 and 480. Texas A&M was 2-0 in those games.
▪ Tulsa has scored 51 first-quarter points and 89 of its season total of 106 in the first half. Fresno State has scored seven in the first quarter, 20 in the first half and a total of 58.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada