FRESNO STATE AT NEVADA
Saturday: 4 p.m. at Mackay Stadium (30,000)
Records: Bulldogs 1-4, 0-1 Mountain West; Wolf Pack 2-3, 0-1
Webcast/radio: ESPN3, KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
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Forecast: Sunny, 79 degrees
Keys to victory
1 Run the ball – Fresno State is ranked last in the Mountain West Conference in rushing defense, but Nevada is not much better at 11th, and actually is allowing more yards per play, 5.8 to 5.3. The Wolf Pack have faced an option team in FCS Cal Poly, but among its FBS opponents, only Hawaii, at 41st, is in the top 50 in rushing offense. Notre Dame is 74th, Buffalo 97th and Purdue 103rd. The Bulldogs have struggled, but this is their best matchup to this point.
2 Finish a tackle – Sounds so simple, but the Bulldogs have struggled with this all season. They get hats around the football, but not always to it, and the lack of finish on tackles has cost them a lot of extra yards. In the loss at Toledo, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said, they gave up close to 200 yards on missed tackles. Nevada has struggled offensively, last in the conference in scoring at 21.8 points per game, but any team can hurt the Bulldogs if they don’t tackle.
3 Have an edge – It has been fairly obvious in the Bulldogs’ first five games, whether through the mistakes made, a lack of physicality or the final score: The other guys are competing at a much higher level and that was never more obvious than watching UNLV running back Charles Williams a week ago. Just a freshman, the former Bullard High School back was a bit miffed at Fresno State’s interest level in recruiting him and it showed. He ran hard and finished runs. Fresno State needs to find its competitiveness.
Nevada hasn’t put a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks through five games, with a Mountain West Conference-low three sacks.
Fresno State, though, has its own issues when it comes to pass protection, and last week Chason Virgil was chased around plenty by a UNLV team that had only five sacks in its first four games.
Fresno State made a change in the spring in the way it sets its protections, taking that responsibility off the quarterback’s to-do list and giving it to the center, which might be part of the reason they have struggled. The Bulldogs have allowed 15 sacks, tied for 10th worst in the league. But Aaron Mitchell, who made his first start at center last week with Jacob Vazquez moving to left guard, said the offensive line just needed to take to its practice reps.
“I think right now it’s more getting on the same page as an offensive line and with the quarterback and the running back,” Mitchell said. “We’re setting it right, just sometimes we’re not on the same page, but that’s what happens when you have young guys in there and a running back that hasn’t played much. It happens all over the world – miscommunication, you get set the wrong way. It happens.”
Better communication obviously will help, but the Bulldogs have allowed opposing defenses to pressure Virgil even when in a max-protect mode blocking with seven. That’s can’t happen.
“It comes down to us just getting more reps and understanding the concept of the play,” Mitchell said. “If we’re blocking seven and they’re bringing four, we should win that every time. Get us all on the same page and playing as a unit and we can get it done.”
Trying to be special – The Bulldogs have some special teams playing at a high level – Fresno State is 14th in the nation in kickoff coverage at 16.8 yards on 17 returns and tied for fourth with no punt-return yards (Washington, Washington State and Ohio all have allowed negative yardage).
Kickoff returns have remained a trouble spot.
The Bulldogs lost their best return man when Da’Mari Scott was ruled academically ineligible and they have given several players shots to hit those returns. Dejonte O’Neal is leading with six returns for a 32.5-yard average, but he is now out for the season because of a knee injury suffered in an overtime loss to Tulsa.
Fresno State, 47th in kickoff returns with a 22.8-yard average, rotated return men last week at UNLV and will do so against Nevada.
Jamire Jordan, KeeSean Johnson and Tyquwan Glass all had returns against the Rebels.
“Those guys all play a lot of snaps, so we’re rotating them a little bit,” special-teams coordinator Dave Ungerer said. “Jamire has got the best speed out of those guys; unfortunately we might have one of the best kick returners in the country, but he’s not suited up right now. That’s a different guy. He’s a big body that will smack it up in there. But with the guys we’ve got, I think the rotation we’ve been working and it’s what we have to do because they all play a tremendous amount of snaps”
Running back Who? – The Bulldogs have three running backs close to returning from injury in redshirt freshman Bryson Oglesby (knee) and freshmen Justin Rice (foot), and Saevion Johnson (hamstring).
One of them is likely to get some reps against the Wolf Pack, backing up Dontel James.
James last week carried the football 18 times for 53 yards and played a majority of the 77 snaps.
“It definitely helps (to get them back),” said Ungerer, who also coaches the running backs. “Especially losing O’Neal, which really hurt. His skill set is different than those guys. He’s more of a dynamic runner. That really hurt us. But those other guys coming back, that gives us more depth and we can take some of the load off of Dontel. He played way too many snaps.
“But those guys are young and we were in a tight game and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable putting them in right away, but they’re getting there. Hopefully, this week there will be a little more distribution amongst those guys.”
Et cetera – Linebacker Robert Stanley, who has started all five games for the Bulldogs and played both the Mike and the Will, is doubtful with a knee injury suffered at UNLV.
Inside linebacker is one area where Fresno State does have depth. Nela Otukolo is likely to join Jeff Camilli in the starting lineup, backed up by Trent Soechting and Jeffrey Allison.
▪ The Wolf Pack enter off games at Purdue and at Hawaii, traveling roughly 3,600 miles round-trip to Indiana and 5,200 to Hawaii. Last season, Nevada came back home to play at Mackay Stadium off long trips to Texas A&M and Buffalo, and lost to UNLV 23-17.
▪ Nevada in its opener against Cal Poly had nine players catch at least one pass; twice, against Buffalo and again last week at Hawaii, it had eight with at least one reception.
▪ Fresno State has blocked two punts and is tied with Texas, Miami and Tulsa for the national lead.
▪ The Bulldogs have scored touchdowns following three of their four forced turnovers this season. Flip that around, and the defense has allowed only one after seven turnovers lost. Nevada is leading the conference in turnover margin at plus-1.2 per game. The Pack has turned the ball over just once.
▪ After UNLV’s Charles Williams, a Bullard High School grad, racked up 153 rushing yards and one touchdown on 18 carries, it is worth noting Nevada has one player that will be facing the hometown team – backup running back Blake Wright (Edison). Nevada offensive lineman Jacob Henry is from Lemoore and wideout Brayden Sanchez from Hanford and Fresno City College.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada