At the time, it sounded a bit like wishful thinking. But Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said he thought the Bulldogs’ defense was ready to take a step forward, that the right players were on the field and that the trust was there, a confidence was there, even though they had not submitted much evidence to support that theory, ranked plenty deep in passing defense, scoring defense and total defense.
But that was duly presented in a 40-20 victory over Nevada, which put Fresno State in line to play for a third consecutive Mountain West Conference championship. Beat Hawaii on Saturday at Bulldog Stadium and they are there, back in the title game as the Western Division champion.
After Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo won a one-on-one matchup and busted a second long rushing touchdown early in the second quarter, the Bulldogs made adjustments to get more defenders to the football. And, those adjustments took, which has not always been the case this season with a defense that went in allowing 491.1 yards and 35.5 points per game.
“By Week 11 you’ve been practicing different things and hopefully you have communication on the sideline of what they’re seeing and what the coaches are seeing up in the box so we can get some good information so we can make some good decisions on what we need to adjust,” DeRuyter said.
“I think we’re starting to get that now, where they don’t come over to the sideline with just a glazed look on their faces. They can tell us exactly that happened so that we can make some adjustments.”
Fajardo, one of only two players in history to have more than 9,000 passing yards and more than 3,000 rushing yards, had rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on just seven plays to that point in the game. He had hit three of his four passes for another 37 yards.
But after that, Fresno State scuttled the Wolf Pack offense and its quarterback.
Fajardo rushed for only 41 yards on 15 plays over the final two-plus quarters, his longest run 12 yards. He hit only 8 of 20 passes (40%) for 89 yards with 34 of that total coming on one play.
Nevada, which had scored 14.2 points in the fourth quarter of its games against FBS opponents to lead the nation and 19.8 points in the second half to rank in a tie for eighth, didn’t score again.
In the second half, it ran just three plays and missed a field goal on the Fresno State side of the field. The Bulldogs finished with three sacks and five tackles behind the line of scrimmage, adding up to a season-high 28 yards in losses.
“He’s a guy that with one-on-one situations, if he makes one guy miss he can go the distance and they caught us in a couple of calls where it was exactly that,” DeRuyter said.
“They were trying to force different things and he took advantage of it and made a guy miss. He’s explosive. We couldn’t catch him. After that, I think (defensive coordinator Nick Toth) did a nice job of making some adjustments getting our guys to settle down. We played really physically the entire game and I think when you hit quarterbacks a lot, those things can take a toll. That guy is a heck of a competitor and we were always fearful that he’s one play away from breaking a huge one on us, but we started get to more guys to the point of attack and when you do that you have more of a chance.”
A few weeks ago, walking off the field after a 45-17 loss to Wyoming team that since is 0-2 and has been outscored 83-17, the Bulldogs didn’t have much sway in the neighborhood.
“A lot of people,” DeRuyter said, “gave us up for dead.”
But Fresno State will be playing for a Western Division title and berth in the Mountain West Conference championship game on Saturday against Hawaii and DeRuyter said he is hoping to see a full house inside Bulldog Stadium for the game.
“I would like to think so,” he said. “It’s another championship game here — we’re playing for the Western Division championship and a berth in the conference championship. To be able to have that two years in a row, hopefully our Red Wave will come out. I hear we’re supposed to have fantastic weather. It’s a 4 o’clock kick. What else you want to be doing on Thanksgiving weekend but watching college football, and live, for a championship right here in our own backyard?”
Fresno State did not sell out a game against Air Force in 2012 in which they clinched its first conference championship since 1999, drawing 36,240. It also did not sell out the Mountain West championship game last season against Utah State, with 31,362 in attendance.
Students can purchase up to five guest tickets for $15 each. The athletic department also has a promotion that includes a ticket to the football game, the basketball game against Cal on Sunday and a Derek Carr bobblehead for $30.
• There was no word yet on the availability of running back Marteze Waller, who did not play after taking a shot to the head on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the first quarter.
“He has to go through the protocol, so we probably won’t know anything probably until Monday about his exact availability, but as of (Saturday) night (trainer Tony Hill) and the doctors all felt that if he progressed he was going to be fine for this week,” DeRuyter said.
• Fresno State will be wearing its black uniforms in the regular-season finale against Hawaii.
• With seven touchdown passes over the past two games, Brian Burrell is now tied with Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick for second in the Mountain West with 20. Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson is leading the conference with 29 touchdown passes.
• Hawaii snapped a 17-game road losing streak two weeks ago with a 13-0 victory at San Jose State, its first away from home since a victory at Idaho in 2011. The Warriors have not won back-to-back road games since 2010 when a team that finished 10-4 had road wins at Fresno State and Utah State sandwiched around a victory over Nevada. Hawaii also will be trying to win a third game in a row, something they haven’t accomplished since that 2010 season.