After rough losses at USC and at Utah to open the season, the Fresno State football team gave up another 500-plus yards and 50-plus points in a loss to Nebraska. But the way the Bulldogs played Saturday night looked eerily similar to 2013 -- and that could be construed as a positive thing, a signal they are closer to fitting some pieces together as they close in on Mountain West Conference play.
Against Nebraska, they won some one-on-one matchups, made some plays, and a big chunk of the 527 yards that Fresno State allowed were the result of busted coverages and assignment mistakes.
Nebraska had eight explosive plays of 20 or more yards, racking up 325 yards and five of its six offensive touchdowns on those plays. On their other 58 plays, the Cornhuskers gained 202 yards or 3.5 per play.
On almost 90% of the plays it defended, the Bulldogs played their defense.
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It's just that defensive coordinator Nick Toth is more than ready to move on from that subject.
"Here's the thing, I'm tired of talking about 90%. I'm angry at ourselves for having that still being the issue," he said. "Whether it's me making a better call or guys doing what we're supposed to do, it's time to quit talking about it. It's time to do it. I think we've got the guys where we need to have them personnel-wise, we've taken those three preseason games or big games and we've worked our butts off to see what we need to get better at and we know. Now we have to do it.
"There's no more talk. Our players know it. We have to show that we're going to do it. We did a little better job doing it Monday through Friday last week and we played a little better. We have to do it again and know that nobody is going to hand us anything. But I'm tired of talking about it. We're tired of talking about it. There comes a time when reasons become excuses and I'm tired of talking about the reasons. I don't want it to be an excuse anymore. I want to do it."
The Bulldogs get a chance to clean up a lot on Saturday against Southern Utah -- and there is a lot left to clean up:
• The Cornhuskers' 70-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Jordan Westerkamp on a third-and-9 play on the first series of the game was the result of a busted coverage.
• The 57-yard touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah on the 'Huskers' next play from scrimmage came as a result of busts by three guys, though Toth took the hit there.
"They ran a play where they ran really fast and we didn't move fast enough," he said. "It should have been down for a 10-yard gain and we had a fundamental bust, but shame on me, I should have put our guys closer to where they needed to end up.
"It wasn't just them not playing it well, I have to recognize Nebraska's ability up front, not that we couldn't play well against them, because we had plenty of good reps. But it took me a minute to put them in alignments that we could play and hold up and we did that. For a while at least I felt like we were matching them, we were closer to accomplishing what we wanted to accomplish."
• The 20-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong Jr. to tight end Cethan Carter was another bust.
If this sounds familiar, there's a reason: 48% of the total offense that the Bulldogs allowed last season came on just 75 of the 992 plays from scrimmage that they defended.
The rest of their plays, they were much better.
That wasn't necessarily the case in the losses at USC and at Utah, but it was against Nebraska. The Bulldogs had only three tackles for loss, but on 28 of the 42 rushing plays they held the Cornhuskers to 3 yards or less and on 15 of those plays they held them to two yards or less.
"We had some things that were pluses, we really did, but we have to win the game," Toth said. "Having pluses and making progress isn't what this is about. It's about playing good defense and I'm tired of talking about being poor. It's not a group that should be poor. We should be better than that."