The analogy Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter used most often was getting punched in the mouth, and it was a snug fit.
It happened often in a 3-9 season and when it did, the Bulldogs lacked an appropriate response when responding at all. So, while there is much to be gleaned from this first game Saturday at Nebraska from the development of quarterback Chason Virgil, the impact of a true nose guard in Malik Forrester, the effectiveness of a more varied offense installed by Eric Kiesau and the playmaking ability of a pared-down defense run by Lorenzo Ward, there is one thing DeRuyter is most curious to see.
That is how the Bulldogs respond to a challenge because it is bound to happen again, likely early in the game, likely a lot, the blows coming from a Cornhuskers program that rather methodically has dispatched the past 29 opponents it has faced from the Mountain West.
At Bulldog Stadium in 2014, it was 55-19.
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“I challenged our guys Day One when we first got back to camp in August. I said, ‘Hey, look, this season needs to be about fighting back,’ ” DeRuyter said. “We got knocked down last year and quite frankly weren’t mature enough to stand up and fight back – and we need to.
“This is our first test and it’s a big test, going to a place like Lincoln with their history and their players, but I want to see our guys compete, fight back and play like Bulldogs. What’s going to matter is when we go out there, are we continuing to fight every play? Are we continuing to believe in each other? You can see that, and I think we will.”
In the second half of its nine losses last season, things went from bad to worse for Fresno State. The Bulldogs were outscored in those nine halves and 18 quarters by a 217-62 margin.
It will be obvious, both ways.
The Bulldogs’ 2015 is better left in the media guide, but when down last season the end result grew more and more obvious. When trailing by eight to 14 points, Fresno State quarterbacks completed only 46.7 percent of their passes and had a passing efficiency rating of 77.76 and the defense allowed 6.3 yards per carry and opposing quarterbacks to hit on 77.1 percent of their throws.
In the second half of the Bulldogs’ nine losses, they were outscored 217-62.
This, senior wideout Aaron Peck said, is a different group.
It responded constantly to challenges through the spring and summer. They weathered a SEALFit training program, developed by a retired Navy SEAL commander. The summer workouts were more structured, the player-run practices better organized and run more efficiently. In fall camp, the Bulldogs were more physical than they had been the four previous seasons, working more live periods and going good versus good with the No. 1 offense going against the No. 1 defense.
That was his main message throughout the summer – we will learn how to fight.
Senior wideout Aaron Peck on strength and conditioning coach Thomas Stallworth
“This whole summer with (strength and conditioning coach Thomas Stallworth) putting us through all these crazy workouts, he just challenged us every week, day in and day out, just to get better and learn how to fight,” Peck said.
“That was his main message throughout the summer – we will learn how to fight. I feel like he did a great job and it has been on the players as well, just knowing that we need to play with that chip on our shoulder or we’ll have another bad year.”
The Bulldogs also seem to be developing a personality behind Virgil, who didn’t wilt before his season ended in the third game of the season, and his first career start, with a shoulder injury.
That will be put to the test by the Cornhuskers, who have a few things to figure out as well.
Quarterback Chason Virgil had his best game in his freshman season on the road against a Power Five opponent, completing 12 of 18 passes for 140 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in a loss at Ole Miss.
Nebraska returns a three-year starter at quarterback in Tommy Armstrong Jr. and a deep corps of receivers led by Jordan Westerkamp, but the Cornhuskers also lack experience in their defensive front four and will have three new starters working into the offensive line.
But they are much more accustomed to landing blows –given their record against teams from the Mountain West. The Bulldogs’ record against the Power Five the past two seasons, in contrast, has been weak – they are 0-5, the losses coming by 36.0 points per game.
“We’ll see,” DeRuyter said. “I think doing things like going through SEALFit training, having gone through a hard offseason after going through a tough season, I think guys have a different level of resolve. We have a bunch of guys back from last year that didn’t like the way things finished and are willing to fix that. I like the edge on this team and the way that they’ve fought back against that.
“It’s difficult when you’re down personnel a little bit, but you can’t ever use that as an excuse. You have to go and fight every single week.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada