Fresno State forced four turnovers in its victory last week at Hawaii, something that had been a fairly common occurrence not all that long ago but something the Bulldogs had not done since last season in a victory at Nevada in Game 11 of 14.
But replicating those results at Brigham Young on Saturday will be a much trickier proposition given the Bulldogs’ depth issues and inexperience and the simple fact that they will be playing a much more efficient team that is less prone to mistakes.
The Rainbow Warriors have turned over the ball 31 times this season, the most in the Mountain West Conference.
“We have to make sure we’re being aggressive, that we’re trying to get after the quarterback when we can,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “The trick with this group right now with some younger guys, you just have to be careful because you can blitz yourself into a situation where those guys haven’t gotten as many reps with that.
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"There’s a tradeoff. You want to pressure or try to set edges or dictate tempo to the offense, but you have to be real careful with the guys that are on the field. You want to ty to force those takeaways, but you also don’t want to give up big plays.”
Finding that balance has been difficult this season, and it was last year as well.
Fresno State, in its first season running the 3-4 installed by coach Tim DeRuyter and Toth, had one of the biggest takeaway turnarounds in the nation over the past 10 years when forcing 35 turnovers in 2012, up from just nine the previous season.
But that takeaway number has dropped in each of the past three seasons, from 35 to 23 to 20. They were on pace for 17 before playing at Hawaii, with that projection now 20.4.
This season, the Bulldogs have had 10 players on defense miss at least one game to injury including starting inside (Mike) linebacker Kyrie Wilson, strong safety Charles Washington, free safety Shannon Edwards, and outside linebackers Brandon Hughes and Tobenna Okeke.
“We had a situation against Nevada where we were scratching and clawing (the Bulldogs were down 17-16 at halftime) and I had a weird mix in there and I tried to get after them,” Toth said. “But the mix on the field was really inexperienced and we ran a call that they didn’t have a lot of reps in and it cracked for 50 yards. You have to be careful.
“You want to create those takeaways that we tried to against Nevada and we did at Hawaii, but you have to keep your eye on everything.”
They were able to do both at Hawaii – the four turnovers were as many as the Bulldogs had gained over their past five games. Fresno State scored only seven points off those takeaways, which is an entirely different issue. But they will keep trying against the Cougars, who have turned over the ball only 13 times this season, nine on interceptions and four on fumbles.
“It was good to get the kids’ confidence back in getting takeaways, attacking the ball in the air, forcing contact fumbles,” Toth said. “Our effort to the ball has been good all year. Some of that stuff with takeaways is timing, but it was good to see our guys cut it loose and run around and play.”
Breaking up also easier to do – Playing into the turnovers number at Hawaii, the Bulldogs also were much more aggressive at the ball while defending the Rainbow Warriors’ receivers.
Hawaii completed only 20 of 49 passes (40.8 percent) and Fresno State was credited with a season-high eight pass breakups.
In the two previous games, at Air Force and against Nevada, they had none and were averaging only 2.3 per game through the first nine games of the season.
“We looked at their receivers, you see them on film and they ran by a lot of DBs. They ran good routes, they had good size on them, so we took it as a challenge that whole week,” said cornerback Jamal Ellis, who had two of the eight pass breakups and is leading the team with seven.
“They were taller, bigger. But we just focused in and we have to do the same thing this week.”
Et cetera – Quarterback Zack Greenlee, who is coming off that six-touchdown game at Hawaii, had a second solid day of practice Wednesday preparing for BYU.
“He has a little different swagger about him and that’s what he needs,” DeRuyter said. “Players always need confidence. If you don’t think you’re going to do it, most times you’re likely right. If you think you’re going to do it, you’re likely right. So you have to get guys to where they have confidence and I know after he got knocked around a little bit he had a little swagger bout him last Saturday night and that was great to see. He wanted to stand up and prove that he could hang in there and he did a good job with it.”
▪ BYU is allowing 212.0 passing yards per game and has given up only 28 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, ranking 38th of 128 in the nation.
▪ Fresno State has allowed 92 points in the fourth quarter this season, which is a lot, but only the third highest total of the four quarters. The Bulldogs have allowed 94 in the first quarter and 104 in the third.
▪ BYU has outscored its opponents 100-54 in the fourth quarter this season and three times has scored 20 or more points in the final 15 minutes. The Cougars had never scored 20 fourth-quarter points in two games in any season under coach Bronco Mendenhall. The last time they had three 20-point fourth quarters in a season was 1988, when quarterback Ty Detmer was a redshirt freshman.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada