The Fresno State Bulldogs’ loss to UNLV can sting for a while, depending on how they fare on Saturday against BYU and more so in their final three Mountain West games.
Losing at home to UNLV, a team that was 2-5 and 1-3 in conference play and not moving forward very fast, will do that. The Bulldogs were, surprisingly but surely, a 21-point favorite. And lost, making timely errors down the stretch. But they did come away with things to take away and take forward, including the play of the defense when backed up in the red zone, one of many areas the Bulldogs have improved this season from last.
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The Rebels made three trips into the red zone in the first half and had to settle for field goals after driving to the Bulldogs’ 16-yard line, their 9 and their 2.
“It’s like, ‘It’s now or never,’ ” said linebacker George Helmuth, who had eight tackles in that game, five coming in the red zone. “Three points is a lot less than seven points, so everyone’s senses are heightened.”
That has been the case since the start of the season, when cornerback Sherman Coleman blasted off the edge and blocked a fourth-quarter field goal attempt to preserve a shutout in a 66-0 victory over Incarnate Word.
UNLV did score a touchdown on its opening drive in the second half, but that was the first red zone touchdown allowed by Fresno State in four games.
The Bulldogs this season have allowed 12 touchdowns when defending in the red zone 22 times, 54.6 percent, tied for 47th in the nation. In conference play, it is five touchdowns in 11 red zone trips, 45.6 percent, second in the Mountain West and 19th in the nation.
“I think our guys take a lot of pride in that,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “They take a lot of pride in playing fast and playing hard and they’ve done that a few times this year. That wasn’t the first time. They did that at Alabama. They’ve done it a few times.”
That could play on Saturday against BYU. The 2-7 Cougars might have righted themselves with a 41-20 victory last week over San Jose State, but have struggled in the red zone.
They have rushed it 32 times inside an opponents’ 20-yard line, gaining only 2.3 yards per play. They have completed 13 of 26 passes for 89 yards, just 3.4 yards per pass attempt.
They subsequently have scored a touchdown on only eight of 22 red zone tries and at 36.4 percent are tied with Texas State for 128th in the nation.
Fresno has passed those tests already, several times.
The nastiest in the loss to UNLV came late in the second quarter. The Rebels made it to the Fresno State 8-yard line, then had a solid 5-yard gain on first down with Helmuth cutting down running back Xzaviar Campbell at the 3. UNLV missed a pass on second down, and on third down cornerback Jaron Bryant broke up a pass intended for Devonte Boyd, but was called for pass interference.
Flush with a fresh set of downs from the Bulldogs’ 2, the Rebels still couldn’t get the football into the end zone.
Defensive end Tobenna Okeke cut down a first-down play for a loss of two yards. Defensive end Robert Stanley cut down a second-down play for another loss of two yards. UNLV quarterback Johnny Stanton then misfired on a third down pass and with six seconds on the clock the Rebels kicked a field goal.
“They did a good job of keeping them out,” Tedford said. “They were in the tight and they did a good job, played really hard. The defense, even though they were on the field a long time, they played really hard and stayed stingy once they got down there and were able to hold them to a couple of field goals.
“That was good to see, because they had some opportunities. I’ve seen games like that get real ugly, when you get those turnovers that get you backed up down there and they’re there series after series. Those things can get away from you, and it didn’t necessarily because of the effort they gave down on the goal line.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
BRIGHAM YOUNG AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7:45 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 5-3, Cougars 2-7
- TV/radio: ESPN2/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: BYU snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 41-20 victory on Saturday over a San Jose State team that is now 1-8 and has lost its road games by an average of 30.8 points. … The Cougars have struggled on offense all season and went into that game against the Spartans averaging just 12.1 points per game, 128th in the nation. The 41 points were a season-high and more than they had in their past three games combined – they scored 7, 10 and 17 points in losses to Boise State, Mississippi State and East Carolina. … BYU has struggled in particular trying to rush the football. It averaged more than 200 yards a game on the ground last season, but even after churning out 266 yards against the Spartans is averaging only 109.2 yards per game, 120th in the nation. That was nothing out of the ordinary for Spartans’ opponents. San Jose State had allowed 278.3 rushing yards per game, ranking 128th in the nation. It also had allowed 26 rushing touchdowns, ranking 129th.