The road to a championship isn’t always smooth.
Then again, it’s rarely this rocky.
But through great fortune and an ability to endure the turbulence, Fresno State finds itself in the thick of a third straight title run.
The Bulldogs (4-6, 3-3), with a victory Saturday at Nevada, would secure a crucial component needed to win the West Division of the Mountain West and advance to the conference championship.
And it all remains in reach despite losing three straight to start the season (by a combined 166-59); suffering a couple of head-scratching conference losses; and absorbing another depressing defeat to main rival Boise State.
“Thinking back three weeks ago, how poorly we played, how bad we felt,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “To think that a couple weeks later the path to the Mountain West championship is in our hands … it’s neat to be in position we can win out and have that opportunity.
“It’s a heck of a testament to our seniors and leadership that they kept our guys in the boat, and kept our guys progressing. It also speaks to what we spoke about in the summer: There’s a ton of parity in this league.”
The Mountain West could have as many as three teams tied for first in the division by season’s end. Fresno State, Nevada and San Diego State remain in the mix. The Fresno State-Nevada winner, however, is the team that gains the inside track.
Fresno State has executed a solid game plan in defending Nevada and its pistol offense the past two seasons under DeRuyter’s watch. The keys: Take away the Wolf Pack’s dive run, and hit quarterback Cody Fajardo as much as possible and force the senior into mistakes.
In the past two meetings combined, Fajardo threw three interceptions, took six sacks and converted only seven times on 21 third-down pass plays. The Bulldogs generated five sacks and three interceptions on Wolf Pack third-down possessions.
“We have to be the more physical team,” Bulldogs senior linebacker Donavon Lewis said. “A lot of teams like to put a lot of pressure on Fajardo, but he has the ability to run around. So as a defense, we’ve got to contain him, too. Can’t let him make the big plays.
“We have to hit that guy a lot and make him understand that he shouldn’t run the ball, can’t run the ball. I’m confident in what the coaches install.”
Despite a plethora of turnovers against Fresno State in those recent matchups, Fajardo and the Wolf Pack this season have been one of the better teams in the nation in limiting their mistakes. Nevada (6-4, 3-3) is tied for eighth in the nation and tops the Mountain West with just 10 turnovers (nine interceptions, one fumble lost).
The Wolf Pack have allowed 13 sacks, tied for 19th in the country.
Four-year starter Fajardo has completed 209 of 339 passes for 2,202 yards (220.2 per game) and 14 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.
The seasonlong performance of Fresno State’s defense, meanwhile, has reflected the Bulldogs as a whole — up, down and all over the place. For the defense, that’s primarily because it has been vulnerable to big plays, including 12 of at least 15 yards in its most recent game. Still, the Bulldogs also are coming off one of their better overall outings, forcing three turnovers in a 38-24 win against San Jose State two weeks ago.
“Sometimes turnovers are given; other times you’ve got to make plays to make it happen,” Bulldogs secondary coach Marcus Woodson said. “Looks like we’re going to have to make some plays against Nevada.”
Fresno State, which was on a bye last week, also will need its offense to make plays, and that starts with the running game.
This group of Bulldogs aren’t like their predecessors of the past two years, when the passing game seemed to get going just by having future NFL second-round draft pick Derek Carr drop back to throw.
Under first-year starter Brian Burrell, some of the Bulldogs’ better passing games have come when they were able to rely first on their run and set up play-action strikes.
Burrell is coming off his most efficient game — 20-of-26 passing (76.9%) for 207 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception and a sack. The Bulldogs rushed for 232 yards against San Jose State, their third highest total of the season. That continued a trend, with Fresno State’s top three games in terms of passing efficiency coming when it topped 200 yards on the ground and all ended in victory.
Fresno State beat New Mexico 35-24 after rushing for 272 yards and completing 66.7% of its passes for 321 yards, and topped Southern Utah 56-16 while rushing for a season-high 389 yards and completing 62.9% of its throws for 291 yards.
“It’s kind of cliche but it’s true: When we can run the ball effectively, it makes the quarterback’s job that much easier,” Burrell said.
Fresno State’s ground game could get an emotional boost as well as a talent infusion should Marteze Waller be able to play after missing most of the final three quarters against San Jose State with a shoulder injury. Waller still ran for 145 yards to increase his season total to 1,086 — a 108.6 per game clip that ranks 21st in the country.
“If they’re going to lighten things up and try to defend the pass, it opens up things in the run game,” DeRuyter said. “The nice thing the way Marteze has been running the ball, he doesn’t need a whole lot of room.
“You put guys in run-pass binds, it’s very, very difficult to load up and try to stop one or the other when you have to stop both.”