When Fresno State hired Lorenzo Ward, the veteran defensive coordinator came in and learned the terminology the Bulldogs had used for four seasons so he, and not the players, would be in a study mode when going through spring practices together for the first time.
Ward pared down the play calls and simplified the scheme to make everything from the communication to the adjustments easier for the players on the field.
The idea was to get the Bulldogs back to playing defense faster, more physically and forcing turnovers like they did in 2012 when coach Tim DeRuyter installed the 3-4 and they jumped from a tie for 119th and last in the nation in turnovers gained with nine all of the way up to fifth with 35.
“It’s simple, man,” free safety Stratton Brown said. “It’s simple and (Ward) is like, ‘All right, if it’s not easy enough then he’s going to make it easier for us.’ But it’s so easy.”
Never miss a local story.
Fresno State has defended 259 rushing plays this season, more than any team in the nation. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 5.4 yards per play and 49 of those plays, one out of every 5.3, have gone for 10 or more yards.
Five games in and at 1-4 with a victory over FCS Sacramento State, why hasn’t the defense taken flight?
Fresno State, which will try to avoid an 0-2 start in Mountain West play Saturday at Nevada, is 10th of 12 in the conference and 107th of 128 in the nation in total defense, giving up 464 yards per game.
Take out the victory over the Hornets and against FBS opponents they have allowed 533.8 yards per game.
The Bulldogs are last in the conference and 126th in the nation against the run and 10th and 114th in scoring defense.
They are first and 22nd against the pass but also are allowing 7.9 yards per play and have given up 11 touchdown passes. Among the top 50 versus the pass, only five have allowed more yards per play and just one has surrendered more TDs.
It’s one of the more perplexing aspects to the Bulldogs’ start.
“Yeah,” Brown said, “I know.”
They do drop clues every week, a lot of them ending up in their end zone. But they know the root of their problems.
We get the call and we know our assignment, we just have to do what we’re coached to do.
Fresno State cornerback Jamal Ellis
“We’re just not focused and are getting caught up in the game,” said Brown, second on the team with 33 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. “I feel like the defense is plenty easy, we just have to grow up. Honestly, that’s all it is. We have to grow up and develop some confidence.
“Last week (at UNLV), we were talking about it, and there were four plays for almost 250 yards. That’s half their offense. They got into the high 400s, something like that. We could have taken away half their offense with those four big plays. We’re a lot better team than we show.”
One of those plays was a busted coverage, but there have not been a ton of assignment mistakes. Ward said there has not been a single call that he would take back from any of the Bulldogs’ games. The issue has been finishing plays and tackling, and it has been pretty glaring.
“We get to guys to the point of attack; we have to do a better job finishing,” DeRuyter said. “That’s the biggest thing. You’d like for the light to turn on. Right now, we’re not consistent enough with all 11 guys on the field. It’s on for most of them, but it only takes one or two guys and missed tackles and big plays can happen.”
The loss at UNLV was the most recent and one of the best examples.
On a 91-yard run in the third quarter by quarterback Dalton Sneed, Fresno State missed a tackle in the end zone that would have resulted in a safety, and once Sneed made it outside and to the sideline two players slowed up thinking he was going to run out of bounds or someone else would make a play.
You’d like for the light to turn on. Right now, we’re not consistent enough with all 11 guys on the field. It’s on for most of them, but it only takes one or two guys and missed tackles and big plays can happen.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
Sneed kept right on going.
“We watched it on film,” Brown said. “We saw it. That’s just not us. We work on running to the ball every day. That’s not us. We can’t think the other guy is going to make the tackle.”
A fix is not as simple as it might sound. The Bulldogs for a third week in a row are practicing at a more competitive pace, going live in team and scout periods. They work on tackling during individual periods. But then Tulsa happened, and last week UNLV happened.
“Bad. Just say what it was, it was bad,” Ward said. “We address it every day. We do more live periods; it used to be one or two. We’re going live even in the scouts now.
“We go 10 reps, the first three are live with the ones and then the next two are thud, then the twos go in. The only way I know how to get better is to tackle in practice. You hate to do that because you’re beating your team up, but the only way you’re going to get better at tackling – you have to do it live.”
The concept doesn’t get any simpler than that.
“We get the call and we know our assignment,” said senior cornerback Jamal Ellis, who is fourth with 23 tackles and has two of their three interceptions. “We just have to do what we’re coached to do.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT NEVADA
- Saturday: 4 p.m. at Mackay Stadium (30,000)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-4, 0-1 in MW, Wolf Pack 2-3, 0-1
- Webcast/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Ex-Bakersfield High star Asauni Rufus is a Nevada defensive back who led the team in tackles as a freshman and is second this season. He also has three forced fumbles in 2016. … Offensive lineman Jacob Henry (Lemoore) has made 18 consecutive starts for the Wolf Pack.