Fresno State beat San Diego State on Saturday, but it might very well have won the game on Tuesday. That was the first of four days that the Bulldogs had to prepare for a team that had won back-to-back Mountain West championships, that was ranked third in the conference against the pass, fourth against the run and first in total defense.
For the offense and the line in particular, they were going to see a lot of looks from the Aztecs, a lot of movement and disguise within their 3-3-5 defense.
It had given them fits in the past and on that first day of practice, not all went well. Afterward, the offensive line stayed out there for a bit, tinkering, fixing this and that.
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“Whether it’s movement, a certain pressure, whatever, they’ve done a really good job when you put it to them and say, ‘We have to stay on this until we get it right,’ ” offensive line coach Ryan Grubb said. “Going back to fall camp, they’ve had a real workmanlike mentality. They were never going to quit until they got it right.
“We threw everything we saw on film at them, repeatedly, and if they didn’t get it, they stayed after, they worked on it, they watched more film. They were dedicated to this. It was a body of work. It wasn’t just the four quarters.”
Fresno State did not allow a tackle for loss in its 27-3 victory at San Diego State and has allowed opponents just 3.4 tackles for loss per game, leading the Mountain West Conference and tied for fourth in the nation with Navy and Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs got it to where by the end of the week they were feeling good.
Then, they wiped out the Aztecs 27-3.
Fresno State had 375 yards of offense and the 27 points, which are not titanic numbers. But it was more about the way they did it in a game full of pressure and possibility. The winner would have a stranglehold on first place in the West Division of the Mountain West and its spot in the conference championship game.
The Bulldogs rushed the ball 38 times for 199 yards, including a minus-1 yard when quarterback Marcus McMaryion took a knee to end the first half.
In there, they had only one explosive run of 20 yards or more. That was the 26-yard touchdown run by Josh Hokit in the second quarter.
The rest of the time, they just bludgeoned the Aztecs’ defense, consistently banging out five yards, seven yards, three yards, nine yards, two yards, six yards.
San Diego State could not stop it.
The Bulldogs ran 54 plays, 27 in each half, and had just three plays that went for one yard, all of them runs and one of them the first of the three touchdown runs by Hokit.
They had just one play go for no gain, that a pass from McMaryion to KeeSean Johnson on their first series in the game.
They did not allow a single tackle for loss, the first time Fresno State had managed that since a loss at Nebraska in 2011.
The line kept its quarterback clean and it kept the sticks moving, pushing around a solid defense and putting the ball into the end zone three times against a team that had allowed three or more touchdowns in only three of its past 19 regular-season conference games.
That was the game plan, well executed, and Hokit and freshman Jordan Mims (112 rushing yards in 21 plays) took full advantage.
“We were going to be patient with the run and run downhill and be physical up front,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “But those guys are just carrying the ball. It’s the guys up front that are creating the creases and I thought the line played excellent (Saturday).”
It worked so well because nothing that the Aztecs threw at them fazed them, and it could have. In 2015, the last time the Bulldogs played a game at SDCCU Stadium, they generated a sickly 89 yards of offense. Last season, they had 217 yards. Between the two games, the Bulldogs scored only 10 points.
“There definitely were clips on film that would have indicated that they could beat us with movement, but as long as we were able to stay disciplined on taking care of the movement we knew we were big enough to move them,” Grubb said.
This time, they had it right. They stayed on task.
“We preached about it all week, good eyes, quick feet,” center Aaron Mitchell said. “We knew they were going to come out and throw the kitchen sink (at us). That’s just the type of defense they play. We harped on it all week.
“I have to give it up to our scout team, they gave us a hell of a look. They worked hard at it. They grind just like we do and they gave us a great look.”
Fittingly, many of the Bulldogs’ offensive linemen were the last off the field again after the game on Saturday night. The Oil Can Trophy had long headed back to the locker room, but Mitchell, David Patterson, Netane Muti, Micah St. Andrew and Christian Cronk still were out there celebrating with family and fans.
On the way to rejoin their teammates, St. Andrew recounted a few of the troubles the Bulldogs’ line went through a year ago – it’s not that long of a walk.
“We have nothing to lose, everything to gain,” he said. “Everybody is scheduling us for their Homecoming, so we have nothing but to prove to everybody out there that we’re better than we were last year.”
But did he anticipate the line being this much better?
Rather than come up with a loud or showy quote that might lead to some ribbing in the blue-collar offensive line meeting room, St. Andrew just laughed.
“This much better?” he asked.
“Ah, we just take it one play at a time.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
UNLV AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 5-2, 4-0 Mountain West; Rebels 2-5, 1-3
- TV/radio: AT&T, ROOT (AT&T UVerse 757, 1757; DirecTV 684)//KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Rebels lost at home to Utah State on Saturday, 52-28, after starting quarterback Armani Rogers was knocked out of the game with a head injury. UNLV has now allowed an average of 42.3 points over its past three games. … The Aggies rolled up 578 yards of total offense, 323 passing and 255 rushing. They converted 8 of 14 third downs, taking advantage of a soft spot in the UNLV defense. … The Rebels entered having allowed opponents to convert on 44.2 percent of their third downs, ranking 10th in the Mountain West. … UNLV does have one of the top running backs in the conference in Lexington Thomas, who racked up 161 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State and is averaging 125.3 yards per game with 12 rushing touchdowns.