An in-season coaching change will pique die-hards’ curiosity and hint at some hope, and anything is possible. Still, Fresno State was a 1-7 football team when coach Tim DeRuyter was let go.
As that record would indicate, the Bulldogs have their issues, particularly with a sputtering offense.
Fresno State has struggled to run the ball all season, and though the Bulldogs have racked up some passing yards – 1,833, third in the Mountain West Conference – that may be more a function of being a volume shooter like the guy at the local gym with the $200 Jordans and 10-cent jump shot.
The Bulldogs lead the conference in pass attempts yet rank 10th of 12 in completion percentage and last in passing efficiency, a stat derived from attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions.
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Fresno State is the only Mountain West team without a win in conference play. At 0-4, the Bulldogs are off to their worst start since 1978, when they were in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association. They won their fifth, and last, league game that season.
Improvement in these final four games under interim coach Eric Kiesau may be incremental or drastic. But the focus on Friday night when Fresno State hosts Air Force in the Bulldogs’ first game post-DeRuyter is simply to get more out of what is put in on the practice field.
“A lot of it is mental,” Kiesau said. “I mean, obviously, physically, you have to go do it. But the mental aspect will get you going physically. (The players) just have to reset their mind, recharge their mind, refocus their mind, and that’s really what we’re doing.”
Kiesau was in a similar position at Kansas in 2014 after being elevated to co-offensive coordinator when head coach Charlie Weis was fired four games into a 3-9 season.
The Jayhawks won only one game after Weis was fired, over an Iowa State team that finished 2-10, but the offensive production did improve slightly.
Then and now, the process in forging some sort of turnaround is similar.
The coaches have to actively get involved, and if we have to run around like we’re 14 years old again, then we’re going to do it.
Fresno State interim coach Eric Kiesau
“We’re preaching relentless effort, so we have a lot of coaches out there behind the ball and with the offense and the defense, with the special teams,” Kiesau said. “The coaches have to actively get involved, and if we have to run around like we’re 14 years old again, then we’re going to do it.
“I ran more in practice (Tuesday) than I’ve probably run in the last four months. I was trying to convince myself it was a workout, but it really was trying to get these guys to run and move around. Football is a hard, fast, physical, mean, tough, game. It’s not easy, so we can’t make it easy on them. We have to push them, push them further than they can push themselves if we have to because they’re so young they don’t understand that yet. We have to force the issue as a coaching staff.”
The physical execution isn’t lost in there and it will be at a premium against the Falcons, who after a 4-0 start have lost three in a row in conference play with an option attack that is well off where it was a year ago when leading the conference in rushing. Air Force has allowed 38 points per game in losing at Wyoming, against New Mexico and at home against Hawaii.
The Bulldogs (1-7, 0-4) obviously have struggled when they have the ball.
In a loss at Utah State last week that left DeRuyter 30-30 in his four-plus seasons at Fresno State, the offensive line was penalized four times for a false start, the Bulldogs rushed for only 2.9 yards on 27 plays, and the offense generated only 3.8 yards per play and 20 points.
Fresno State has scored 23 points or fewer in four straight games and six times in eight games this season.
“Even though we’re talking about effort, you can play really hard, but if you have a lot of mistakes and your mental approach isn’t right to the details of your assignment, you can have mistakes there, too,” Kiesau said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword, but we have to make sure we’re fundamentally sound, especially with Air Force, the way they play offense. And then we have to make sure we push the right buttons with their effort and make sure we have that effort in all three phases of the game.”
The Bulldogs cut off media access to the players during the week, but for Kiesau that starting point will lead to improved execution.
“I’m hoping the people in the crowd and the people watching on TV, that there’s one thing they all notice,” he said, “and that’s we’re playing with relentless effort.”
▪ Fresno State expects a crowd of about 25,000 for its Salute to Services game against Air Force. The season-high attendance at Bulldog Stadium is 31,817 for the opener against Sacramento State; the low was 23,273 against Tulsa.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
AIR FORCE AT FRESNO STATE
- Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Falcons 4-3, 1-3 Mountain West; Bulldogs 1-7, 0-4
- TV/radio: ESPN2/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)