Fresno State takes a 1-3 record into its Mountain West Conference opener Saturday at UNLV.
FRESNO STATE AT UNLV
Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500)
Records: Bulldogs 1-3, Rebels 1-3
TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: Clear, 85 degrees
Keys to victory
1 Hit the long ball – UNLV is sending some mixed signals with its pass defense. It has allowed only a 51.3 completion percentage in four games while facing the 12th (Central Michigan) and 25th (UCLA) best passing offenses in the nation. But it also is last in the Mountain West, having allowed 48 pass plays of 10 or more yards and 11th of 12 with 17 plays of 20 or more yards. The Rebels could be OK; they could struggle. The Bulldogs need to test them to see and win some of those matchups.
2 Stop the run – The Bulldogs have given up 318 and 336 rushing yards the past two weeks in losses at Toledo and at home to Tulsa, respectively, the first time they have yielded 300 or more in back-to-back games since 2007. UNLV doesn’t have much of a passing offense, but the Rebels are averaging six yards per rush and 250 per game. They will be playing a backup quarterback, likely redshirt freshman Dalton Sneed, who also figures to be put to use in the running game – only complicating run-fits that the Bulldogs struggled with against Tulsa.
3 Find an edge – Physicality has been a fleeting thing for the Bulldogs. Now in conference play, Fresno State needs to find an edge mentally, physically or both and use it on the field. They need to sustain or get off blocks and finish plays whether on offense or defense. That physicality is sure to be in there somewhere, and UNLV will be a tester. In the Rebels’ second season under coach Tony Sanchez, the Bulldogs have to believe they are farther ahead but must play like it to come out on top.
Fresno State put up 31 quick points last week in an overtime loss to Tulsa at Bulldog Stadium, then didn’t do much … certainly not enough. The Bulldogs went three-and-out on three consecutive possessions while the Golden Hurricane worked its way back into the game, then four more in a second half in which they generated 176 total yards and 10 points.
What happened? A more pertinent question now is, what did you learn?
“We just have to maintain it,” offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said. “That’s the biggest thing. We have to learn how to play with a lead. Just like anything else, whether you’re playing from behind, playing with a lead, playing in a tie game, playing overtime – all of those situations we have to get better at.
“We have to learn to play with a lead and continue to have that mentality of putting your foot on someone’s throat ... finish them and not let them back in the game no matter what happens.”
The Bulldogs, Kiesau said, might have taken a peek to see if the Golden Hurricane still had some life.
“We knew Tulsa’s offense was a high-powered offense and could score some points and we tried to get the message across,” Kiesau said, “but we just have to execute better.”
One on one – Bulldogs wideouts figure to see a lot of man coverage from UNLV, which is something they have to be looking forward to in this matchup.
Fresno State already has had its receivers put together three 100-yard games – they had only one last season and three in 2014 – and just about everyone they put on the field has the potential to make a play downfield starting with inside receiver Jamire Jordan.
“It puts us in a great spot to make a lot of plays,” Jordan said.
It will require some work, though.
Against Tulsa, the Bulldogs in the second half started to max protect, blocking seven against the Golden Hurricane pass rush and giving their receivers chances to win matchups and make plays.
But that didn’t always happen.
“We have to get better at that,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We’re going max protections and counting on those guys to win. They have to be mentally tough to do that, knowing that they’re going to get double-covered sometimes, and you have to keep fighting to get open.”
On guard – UNLV has not exactly beat up on the Mountain West in football; the Rebels are 35-92 all-time (.276). Counting backward the past four seasons, they have gone 2-6, 1-7, 5-3 and 2-6.
They did, however, win their conference opener in three of those seasons.
Last year, the Rebels opened Mountain West play with a 23-17 victory at Nevada.
Ka-boom – DeRuyter suggested several times this week that the Bulldogs were ready to explode, that the pieces were very close to coming together on offense and on defense.
It would seem there is a team somewhere on that schedule that is going to be in a bad spot when and if that does in fact happen, whether it’s UNLV, Nevada the next week or maybe San Diego State back at home.
“I think we’re definitely battle-tested now,” tight end Chad Olsen said. “We’ve got guys that are starting to calm down a little bit and not be so deer-in-the-headlights look when we run out on the field the first time, which just brings a mess more confidence, and from there it’s just having fun and letting it loose.
“You don’t have to be all stressed out; you can just go out there and have some fun. I think it’s just that little bit of getting more comfortable on the field, but we’re close. We’re almost there.”
That feeling also is present on the other side of the ball.
“I think there have been moments in every game so far that we’re like, ‘Wow, we really have something here,’ ” strong safety DeShawn Potts said.
“We just have to be more consistent and reach that goal that we’re chasing after and it’s just doing it as a team, trusting in each other in all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams. Instead of doing it in spurts, we have to do it in all four quarters.”
Line change? – The Bulldogs continued to tinker with their offensive line in this week’s practices and could make a change inside after opening the first four games with the same group: from left tackle across, Christian Cronk, Aaron Mitchell, Jacob Vazquez, Micah St. Andrew and David Patterson.
Mitchell took reps at center as well as guard, Vazquez at guard as well as center and Ryan Popolizio has moved up since switching to guard from tackle.
Et cetera – UNLV is ranked 14th in the nation in rushing offense at 250.3 yards per game and tied for seventh in fewest sacks allowed with two. The latter is an area in which the Rebels really struggled a year ago, tying for 99th with 33.
When these teams met last season at Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State racked up six sacks. It had only five in the two games before and five in five games after facing the Rebels.
▪ With 14.5 tackles against Tulsa, inside (Will) linebacker Jeff Camilli is leading the Bulldogs in total tackles despite playing in only three of their four games. Camilli, who has been in on 32 tackles and is second in the conference and 12th in the nation with 10.7 per game, did not play against Football Championship Subdivision Sacramento State because of an ankle injury.
▪ The Rebels are expected to give redshirt freshman Dalton Sneed his first career start at quarterback, notable in many ways including this: UNLV is 0-3 this season when passing for fewer than 200 yards. Sneed has attempted one pass in two games, a completion for six yards.
▪ UNLV has the lowest passing-efficiency rating in the conference in games against Football Bowl Subdivision schools – just 80.49, completing only 42.1 percent of its passes for 459 yards with three TDs and six interceptions.
▪ Olsen, the Bulldogs’ tight end, caught four passes, including two for touchdowns, the last time Fresno State played at Sam Boyd Stadium.
▪ To this point, Fresno State’s Chason Virgil has thrown 66 of his 80 completions to KeeSean Johnson (26), Aaron Peck (21) or Jordan (19).
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada