San Jose State coach Ron Caragher is preparing for the possibility the Spartans’ longtime rivalry with Fresno State inspires the Bulldogs on Saturday.
It’s also homecoming, which could serve as further motivation.
Considering how Fresno State has struggled regardless of shakeups in its starting lineups, coach Tim DeRuyter will take just about any help to fuel his Bulldogs and get them to play “like we’re capable of playing.”
Though Fresno State (3-6, 2-3) has an outside shot to reach the Mountain West championship despite a three-game losing streak, the Bulldogs with one more loss would fall out of bowl contention and also ensure DeRuyter’s first losing season in his three years.
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And it’ll be San Jose State (3-5, 2-2) that has a chance to stifle those bowl aspirations, a season after dashing the Bulldogs’ dreams of reaching a BCS bowl. The Spartans come into the matchup with their own skid, having lost their past two games.
“A rivalry game, it can bring out the best in everyone,” Caragher said. “We have too much respect for Fresno State, their tradition, their program, their coaches and their players.
“They’re doing some movement around, just trying to fine tune and get that chemistry right at some different positions. So I anticipate a good football team.”
Unfortunately for Fresno State, the Bulldogs have yet to resemble a good football team lately. Two major factors have been their defense and quarterback play -- and they’ve shown little improvement in those areas since beginning the season with three straight losses to Power 5 conference opponents.
The Bulldogs’ current losing stretch has come against the likes of UNLV (for the Rebels’ only victory against an FBS team), Boise State and Wyoming (which snapped a four-game losing streak).
“That’s not the team that we are,” DeRuyter said.
The scary thought for Fresno State, though, is maybe the Bulldogs are playing as well as they can.
Through nine games, Fresno State ranks among the 24 worst defenses in the nation in the four major statistical categories. The Bulldogs rank No. 116 in total yards allowed (497.2 game average), No. 114 in run defense (235.8), No. 112 in points allowed (36.8) and No. 101 in pass defense (261.4).
On the offensive side, the Bulldogs continue to work junior Brian Burrell back in the starting quarterback mix. Burrell beat out graduate transfer Brandon Connette and started the first eight games before redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee made his starting debut last week against Wyoming. It took only three quarters before the coaching staff again turned to Burrell to finish the game.
Fresno State began this week reopening the starting quarterback competition between Burrell and Greenlee. A starter is expected to be named close to game time.
For the season, Burrell has completed 148 of 263 passes (56.3%) for 1,562 yards (173.6 per game) and 13 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He also has rushed 71 times for two touchdowns and 253 yards, which ranks second on the team.
The coaching staff said Burrell elevated his game when Connette arrived. They’re hoping Burrell’s benching last week will motivate him further to improve should he get into the game against San Jose State.
Burrell said he’s just trying to stay even-keeled emotionally and with his preparation amid the turbulent season.
“It’s been tough,” Burrell said. “Nobody before the season was hoping to go 3-6 in their first nine games. Nobody thought we would do that. This team worked really, really hard -- definitely disappointed. That said, we’re going to do everything we can to win these next three games. We’re going to keep working hard. This team has a good attitude. We’ve just got to keep finding our way.
“I’m trying to get better every week. I really feel like every day I am getting better. And I’m going to keep pushing to get better and help this team get better.”