It was one of the most pressing questions for Fresno State coming into the season, and front and center again Bulldogs Coach Tim DeRuyter is quick to correct.
It was the left tackle position and not so much Alex Fifita, who was slotted to fill that spot, because the 300-pound junior had the footwork, balance and the strength to succeed there. He just hadn’t yet. But 11 games in and with a shot to clinch the Western Division title in the Mountain West Conference with a victory on Saturday against Hawaii, Fifita, who started five games at right tackle as a freshman and six at left guard last season, clearly has made himself at home while winning matchups against some challenging pass-rushers.
“I think he’s played as well as anybody in our offensive line has,” DeRuyter said. “He has really done a nice job of developing. I think (offensive line Coach Cameron Norcross) has done a great job of getting him in tune spatially with what a left tackle has to do and he has really given our quarterbacks a lot of comfort knowing their blind side is covered.”
That spatial awareness is only one aspect of the job Fifita has had to grasp moving to left tackle, but he has won a lot of matchups against high-energy and highly-motivated pass-rushers. The mental aspect and gaining confidence is another, and one has played right into the other.
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For much of the victory at Nevada last week, Fifita went against defensive end Brock Hekking, who was a first-team all-conference selection last season as a junior and went into the game with seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He got none of either against the Bulldogs.
Norcross counts just two sacks against the left tackle all season, and Fifita and the Fresno State offense continue to take slow but forward steps. Fresno State goes into the game against Hawaii off its most productive back-to-back games against FBS competition this season, racking up 439 total yards in beating San Jose State and 551 in winning at Nevada.
“He has done a nice job, not only with the physical aspect of it but with the mental aspect of playing left tackle, seeing things differently than you have to see them at guard, and he’s done a real good job from his freshman year on of learning the game of football,” Norcross said. “The speed of the game this season isn’t a big deal to him. Now, he doesn’t execute every block properly, but that’s why I have a job, right? But he’s doing a good job in that transition and we feel comfortable with him out there.
“A couple of years ago, when we go to Hawaii, he’s a puppy, and how confident he was I don’t know. Now, he has that confidence. That comes from playing a year on a great team and knowing, ‘Hey I can do this. I’m part of this. This is who I am. I don’t want to be beat.’ It’s not like, ‘Am I going to get beat?’ It’s, ‘I will not be beat now.’ ”
RB Waller OK’d to play
Running back Marteze Waller, who was cleared early in the week after taking a helmet to helmet hit in the first quarter in the Bulldogs’ victory at Nevada, will play Saturday against Hawaii.
“It looks like he’s been doing well in practice,” DeRuyter said. “The doctors cleared him and it’s the last game of the year — we’re going to use all of our bullets.”
Hawaii bringing a hammer
Hawaii rushed for 348 yards in its victory last week over UNLV, its best game since 2009 when it racked up 360 yards against Utah State.
Joey Iosefa, the Rainbow Warriors’ 245-pound running back, accounted for 219 of those yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries, and will present a different but interesting matchup for the Bulldogs, who have had issues fitting the run the right way this season.
“We’ve had some issues, especially with backs that have a great burst,” DeRuyter said. “They get through the hole and can exploit our guys when we don’t take good angles to the ball. He’s more of a push-the-pile guy, but he has had some 20- to 50-yard runs that concern you. He’s a good back, and we have to get multiple guys there and we have to target well. You have to hit that guy low. You hit him in the chest and he’s going to keep on running.”
Iosefa has four runs of 20 yards or longer this season (21, 22, 32 and 45). He also has at least one rushing touchdown in nine consecutive games dating to last season.
The Bulldogs used freshman linebacker Chris Moliga as their scout team running back this week instead of James Noble III to get ready for Iosefa.
“Chris did a nice job trying to simulate him in both the wildcat stuff and their one-back stuff,” DeRuyter said. “It’s hard to impersonate a guy who’s 250 and that runs as hard and as well as he does. We tried to get as big a guy as we could. Normally, James Noble does a great job for us, but he’s much more of a scat back.”
Around practice ...
• Moliga, who was recruited as an athlete and was put at outside (SAM) linebacker at the start of fall camp, came in at about 205 pounds. “I think he’s close to 230 right now, and he’s liking that training table, too,” DeRuyter said.
• Four of Hawaii’s eight losses have come by eight points or fewer, including 17-16 to Washington and 38-30 to Oregon State. That’s a little closer than the Bulldogs’ two games against Pac-12 opponents — Fresno State lost 52-13 at USC and 59-27 at Utah.
• Hawaii shouldn’t have any jet lag issues come kickoff. The Rainbow Warriors flew to Los Angeles on Wednesday, spent Thanksgiving Day there and are scheduled to bus to Fresno on Friday.
• Fresno State has forced seven turnovers in its past two games, three against San Jose State and four at Nevada. The Bulldogs have 18 on the season. They forced 35 turnovers in 2012 in their first season playing the 3-4 installed by DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth and had 23 last season.
• The Bulldogs have a walk-through Friday, but DeRuyter liked the way they finished the Hawaii prep before taking a turkey break. “You get a little pep in your step when you’re playing the last game of the year and you still control your destiny about winning the division,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a long season, didn’t know it would have all the twists and turns that it has, but when you get to the last week of the season and there’s something out there to play for, everyone is excited.”