Fresno State finds itself in rebound mode, which is fairly new, at least this season. But so, too, were the circumstances that put them there.
In a 26-16 loss to UNLV, they were in a tight fourth quarter for the first time, needing to execute and make some plays. In the first seven games they were way up or way down going into the fourth quarter, and in Mountain West Conference play it always was way up. Against Nevada, it was 24 points. At San Jose State, 14 points. Against New Mexico, 31. At San Diego State, 24.
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As center Aaron Mitchell said afterward, they learned an expensive lesson.
The Bulldogs on Saturday get a chance to build on that against Brigham Young before returning to conference play next week with a tough run of road games going first to Hawaii and the following week to Wyoming.
The Cougars are 2-7 but have losses to three ranked teams in No. 19 LSU, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 21 Mississippi State.
The teams that have beaten BYU are a combined 36-21.
The teams Fresno State has beaten are a combined 13-29, including a championship subdivision program in Incarnate Word, which is 1-7.
This could be another severe test for the Bulldogs, and how they react to it is one of many things that are worth watching as this program develops.
Here are four more:
Can you run it?
The Bulldogs were on a solid roll with their run game through the first four conference games, averaging 5.1 yards per play and 207.5 yards per game.
It was there in a loss to UNLV, as well, but hidden a bit by the bad snap on a fourth-quarter punt that went for a 36-yard loss.
That team rush knocked the Bulldogs’ rushing numbers down to 140 yards on 34 plays and 4.1 yards per play from 176 yards on 33 plays and 5.3 yards per play.
But they had six rushing plays of 10 or more yards. They ran it three times on third down, gaining 20 yards and two first downs, the miss on a 3rd-and-2 in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs need to maintain that level of consistency against BYU to have a shot on Saturday at a sixth victory and gaining bowl eligibility.
But while the Bulldogs’ rushing numbers from last week are a tad deceiving, so, too, are the Cougars’ rushing defense numbers.
BYU is not an unmovable object – it allows 178.1 yards per game on the ground. But as an independent and playing a number of Power Five opponents, the breakdown of its rushing defense presents a challenge for Fresno State.
The Cougars have allowed an average of 4.9 rushing yards per play and 238.3 rushing yards in four games against Power Five teams, and they have allowed an average of 3.1 rushing yards per play and 120.8 yards in four games against Group of Five teams.
For the Bulldogs, establishing a rhythm and consistently grinding out yards at a solid clip will be important, because it’s unlikely they will break too many big runs.
BYU has allowed only two rushing plays of 20 or more yards.
Nothing deceiving about that.
Fresno State hasn’t allowed an explosive pass play of 20 or more yards since the fourth quarter of its 38-0 victory over New Mexico, three games and 55 passes ago.
It has allowed only 15 this season, tied for fifth best in the nation.
But it might want to keep an eye on BYU wideout Aleva Hifo, who over the past three games has developed into a down field threat.
Hifo had just 10 catches for 53 yards in the Cougars’ first six games, but he has a reception for 40 or more yards in each of the past three games, losses at No. 21 Mississippi State and East Carolina and a victory at San Jose State.
The Cougars’ quarterback play has been an issue – they have thrown 15 interceptions, at least one in every game against an FBS opponent.
But in the past two games they have passed for 319 yards at East Carolina and 332 against San Jose State – the first time they have had 300 or more in back-to-back games since 2015 – and have a passing efficiency rating of 144.54.
In their first six games against FBS opponents it was 86.96.
And worry …
BYU has two large bodies on the interior of its defensive line to plant themselves in gaps, including freshman Khyiris Tonga at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds.
But the larger concern for the Bulldogs during the week of prep was defensive end Sione Takitaki, who is leading the Cougars in tackles for loss (8.0), sacks (3.5) and quarterback hurries (four). BYU will move Takitaki around, deploying the 245-pound junior at left or right end and he is extremely active.
One assistant said he was the best defensive player the Bulldogs will have faced this season – and that includes No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Washington.
The Bulldogs will have to get Takitaki blocked, but as with the run game the offensive line has been able to execute scheme and handle some tough challenges.
Fresno State is leading the Mountain West and tied for third in the nation in tackles for loss allowed, just 26 or 3.3 per game.
KeeSean Johnson has a reception in 30 consecutive games, and the junior wideout been a high value target for both Marcus McMaryion and Chason Virgil.
He was targeted seven times and had seven receptions against Incarnate Word, 11 targets and eight receptions at Alabama (72.7 percent), 10 and seven against Nevada (70 percent), seven and five against New Mexico (71.4 percent).
In the past two games, facing a solid pass defense at San Diego State and a not-so-solid pass defense against UNLV, the Bulldogs’ have been misfiring. Johnson was targeted 16 times but had only eight receptions.
In the loss to UNLV, McMaryion and Johnson hit on just four of nine targets and the last four, all in the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs were trailing, fell incomplete. That includes two on fourth-down plays and one on a 3rd-and-2 play just before the Bulldogs’ ill-fated punt attempt that set up the Rebels’ final score.
That final miss, the 3rd-and-2, hints at an issue and here it is … McMaryion is first in the Mountain West and tied for 24th in the nation in completing 64.3 percent of his passes, but on third down he has hit just 15 of 43 throws (34.9 percent), and only five of the 15 completions resulted in a first down.
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, at Mississippi State and at 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.