Fresno State's losing skid to open the 2014 football season has some built-in mitigating factors, even if the margins of defeat have been alarming.
The Bulldogs (0-3) have been outscored 166-59 while playing three straight Power 5 conference opponents in No. 17 USC (2-1), Utah (2-0) and No. 24 Nebraska (3-0) — with all of the opponents boasting bigger, better and deeper talent.
Fresno State has been exposed on the perimeter, where inexperience and vulnerability to big plays has been on full display, particularly against the spread attacks of USC and Utah.
Open-field tackling, especially, has been an issue.
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"When you're playing teams like the ones we just played where the opponent's skill on the edge is better than yours potentially, facing teams that spread you out, it's a challenge," defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. "It doesn't mean we can't make the play and make the stops, but those guys have some really good skill out there … and (are) causing us to miss."
But if Saturday's opponent — Southern Utah (0-3) of the lower-tiered championship subdivision — also can create problems for the Bulldogs, the defense may not have any excuses left.
With a spread of their own, the Thunderbirds also try to create space for their playmakers and catch defenses in one-on-one situations downfield and with their quicker-strike passes.
"That's the game these days, that's the game," Toth said. "Everyone wants to spread you out and try to isolate a player on a defender.
"There's a lot of schools of thoughts how to defend it. People talk about varying coverages, pressuring to defeat that. People talk about not rushing at all. There's a lot of different tactics people use. Bottom line for us: We've got to play better on defense, got to be quick reacting and make some plays."
Fresno State has increased its emphasis on tackling in practices since the opening loss at USC. Players are instructed to avoid taking their teammates to the ground but to be sure to wrap them up.
Coach Tim DeRuyter admitted a couple of weeks ago that he miscalculated how much the Bulldogs needed to work on tackling going into the season. But the hope is that constant preaching and practice will start producing results in the games.
"Coaches preach open-field tackling every week, every day," cornerback Curtis Riley said. "We've got to be more physical, close in on the ball carriers faster. Just keep working on our technique and applying it to the game.
"We see it every day in practice, going up against our own spread. Just got to trust the technique and know where your help is coming."
Southern Utah hasn't been lighting up the scoreboard, averaging 335.7 total yards and 13 points per game.
But receivers Chris Robinson and Justin Brown could cause problems for the Bulldogs.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Robinson is averaging 74.3 yards per game on 18 catches, with one touchdown. The 6-2, 200-pound Brown is next with seven receptions.
"Open-field tackling is something you've always got to work on, but you really don't know where you're at until Saturdays," DeRuyter said. "You've got to balance monitoring the health of your players with the effectiveness in teaching tackling.
"No doubt, it'll be important this week. Southern Utah's got some skill, they're going to try to spread us out and spring guys out in one-on-ones. We can't allow the big plays and part of that means making open-field tackles."
SOUTHERN UTAH AT FRESNO STATE
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
Records: Thunderbirds 0-3, Bulldogs 0-3
TV: None. Game can be seen online on MW Network at campusinsiders.com
Radio: KFIG (AM 940); KGST (AM 1600)