We’ll start with a quote from George Helmuth, a Fresno State Bulldogs linebacker.
“Football,” he said, “is so much fun when you’re winning.”
That obviously makes a lot of sense, particularly given the history at play. The Bulldogs’ 41-21 victory over Nevada on Saturday was only the sixth over the past 28 games and the first over a FBS or Mountain West opponent since 2015.
The good thing is we don’t really know (where that ceiling is). We have hopes it’s really high. We’re going to just keep playing. We have San Jose State next week. Try to win that game and keep going from there. But we like our chances, and we love the scheme.
Fresno State linebacker George Helmuth
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But how they got there also is a part of that fun for a defense that is getting cut loose in all sorts of ways by coordinator Orlondo Steinauer – and that coaching is telling in the results.
“There definitely are some different looks,” coach Jeff Tedford said.
There was a third-and-3 play in the third quarter where defensive end Emeka Ndoh dropped and had coverage against Wyatt Demps, a wideout. And Demps not only is a wideout, he is the Wolf Pack’s leading receiver; good quickness, good speed, good hands.The Wolf Pack went there and Ndoh, who weighs 250 pounds, was able to chase down Demps crossing the middle of the field right to left and bring him down for no gain.
“We do a lot,” safety Juju Hughes said. “Coach O, he has a lot of stuff in his book. We like to move around and show different things to confuse quarterbacks. It’s hard on people when you don’t settle in one spot and show the same thing every play. We have a lot of fun doing it and it’s fun playing it.
“You could just see the confusion sometimes when you’re playing somebody. It starts to get fun. You make a few plays, you see it’s working, it only makes you want to do it more and more. It’s fun for us. You throw it to our DBs a few times, you see it works.”
Nevada quarterback Ty Gangi did that three times and cornerback Jaron Bryant, who had two of the Bulldogs’ interceptions, returned one for a touchdown.
Fresno State after four games is ranked third in the Mountain West in total defense, allowing 339.0 yards per game and that includes matchups against No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Washington. The Bulldogs are leading the conference in rushing defense after ranking 11th last season and in 2015.
The Wolf Pack did score – one touchdown came on an improbably perfect throw from Gangi, who came in completing only 47.3 percent of his passes; another came following a questionable pass interference penalty on a fourth-down play that gave Nevada a first down at the Fresno State 2-yard line with 26 seconds to go.
Right now, even the things that don’t look all that good don’t look all that bad.
Fresno State has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67.4 percent of their passes, which puts then 121st in the nation.
But the Bulldogs also have allowed 6.9 yards per pass play, which is a manageable number and much better than the teams around them in those completion percentage rankings.
Only one of the bottom 20 teams there have allowed fewer yards per pass than the Bulldogs – Nebraska, at 6.7. East Carolina and Tulsa, the teams ranked 122nd and 123rd, have allowed 10.5 and 11.5 yards per pass. Hawaii has allowed 9.5 yards per pass, Louisiana-Lafayette is at 9.4, UTEP is at 9.2.
Those are destructive numbers to a defense. In pass-happy college football where offenses keep piling up yards and points, the Bulldogs’ 6.9 isn’t a bad number, tied for 57th in the nation and, also worth noting, third in the Mountain West.
Nevada is in its infancy with its Air Raid offense, far from competent with it at this point. But it had 16 series and on nine of them the Wolf Pack ran no more than three plays. Through the middle of the game, Nevada ran 12 series and averaged just 12.5 yards per drive.
The Bulldogs had the Wolf Pack off the field in less than two minutes on all of them. On those 12 drives, Nevada held possession on one for 1:37 – that was the longest.
You could just see the confusion sometimes when you’re playing somebody. It starts to get fun. You make a few plays, you see it’s working, it only makes you want to do it more and more. It’s fun for us.
Fresno State cornerback Juju Hughes
Fresno State gave up only five first downs there, none in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs also in the game allowed only 61 rushing yards and of the 16 carries by a running back Fresno STate held to 2 yards or less 10 times.
It may be easy to dismiss Nevada, which obviously is struggling. But the Bulldogs have had the same amount of time with this defense as their opponent on Saturday has had with its offense.
“It’s a little unorthodox, but it’s all for a reason and it’s really predicated usually on what the offense does; where you need to be, where you need to get to,” Tedford said. “I think we’re getting more disciplined with what’s going on, making sure that we’re containing things, with Emeka peeling back and doing things that they’re supposed to do. They know where the weaknesses are and they know how to cover them.
“It takes a while, but Orlondo does a good job of simplifying it, for the kids to understand what it means. The teaching piece is really critical when it comes to that, but the kids put in a lot of time and hard work to get it done.”
They don’t know where the ceiling is for this defense, only that there is a lot of room before they get close to hitting their heads.
“The good thing is we don’t really know (where that ceiling is),” Helmuth said. “We have hopes it’s really high. We’re going to just keep playing.
“We have San Jose State next week. Try to win that game and keep going from there. But we like our chances, and we love the scheme.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN JOSE STATE
- Saturday: 4:30 p.m. at CEFCU Stadium (30,456)
- Records: Bulldogs 2-2, 1-0; Spartans 1-5, 0-2
- TV/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Spartans are off to a slow start under first-year coach Brent Brennan, opening the season 1-5 including a Mountain West loss Saturday night at UNLV. That one victory came against Cal Poly, a championship subdivision program. San Jose State is ranked last in the conference in scoring offense (15.8 ppg) and scoring defense (44.5 ppg).