The last Fresno State football player off the practice field Wednesday, Stratton Brown stuck around catching passes from a machine.
This is unusual because Brown is the starting free safety. His primary job is to bat away passes, not catch them.
Turns out Brown was peeved at himself for dropping an interception. The extra drill was his self-imposed penance.
“I haven’t gotten a pick in forever,” Brown said. “Got to get on the Juggs. Can’t miss those opportunities.”
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Brown picked a good time to get his hands honed since the Bulldogs are at a brief point in their schedule when they’re facing teams that don’t place “passing” somewhere between “looking tough in the team photo” and “making sure dirty laundry lands inside the hamper” on their list of priorities.
I finally get to be in the pass game.
Fresno State free safety Stratton Brown
Toledo represents the season’s first real test of Fresno State’s pass defense. The Rockets have a balanced, multidimensional attack that can gash defenses on the ground and through the air. The second is Tulsa, which plays at hyper speed and has a quarterback (Dane Evans) who threw for 4,332 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago.
After that, we return to the regularly scheduled diet of handoffs.
What do all 12 teams on Fresno State’s schedule have in common? Each, including Toledo and Tulsa, has attempted more runs than passes during the season’s opening weeks.
In most cases, a heckuva lot more.
It’s early yet, but only two Mountain West Conference teams have called more pass plays than runs: Fresno State (55 percent passes) and Boise State (52 percent). The other 10 range from somewhat balanced to completely tilted toward the ground game.
2 Teams in the Mountain West Conference (Fresno State and Boise State) that have called more pass plays than runs this season
That Air Force is running the ball 89 percent of the time and New Mexico 69 percent should come as no surprise. Those teams are wedded to the option. Neither should San Diego State (64 percent runs), since the Aztecs are a power-running outfit centered around star tailback Donnel Pumphrey.
While Nevada (56 percent runs) and Utah State (55 percent runs) are showing some semblance of balance, Colorado State (61 percent runs), San Jose State (64 percent runs) and UNLV (66 percent runs) are not.
Even Hawaii (59 percent runs) has leaped aboard the ground parade under first-year coach Nick Rolovich.
What in the name of Timmy Chang is going on?
“That is a little bit surprising,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said when I told him the numbers. “Some of the teams you mentioned, like San Diego State, are going to be a little bit more run. But Hawaii … I assumed they were going to be a little more of a run-and-shoot type of offense.”
There are definitely more teams in our conference and around the country that emphasize running the football.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
One factor is the proliferation of spread formations. When defenses are stretched horizontally, the running lanes get that much wider and easier to exploit.
The second is an ugly truth for the MW: The league simply doesn’t have many good passing quarterbacks.
Right now the list pretty much starts and ends with Boise State sophomore Brett Rypien. But thanks (or no thanks) to the schedule, Fresno State doesn’t face Rypien until 2017 and ’18 – when he’ll be really, really good.
Who’s the league’s second-best quarterback? Statistically, it’s San Jose State’s Kenny Potter, a guy Spartans fans have been trying to bench since last season.
At least Potter has a few FBS wins on his résumé. Utah State’s Kent Myers, San Diego State’s Christian Chapman and Colorado State’s Nick Stevens do as well. But Stevens, last season’s second-team All-MW pick behind Rypien, has been benched in favor of a true freshman.
From Fresno State’s Chason Virgil to Wyoming’s Josh Allen (Firebaugh High via Reedley College) to UNLV’s Johnny Stanton to the three guys Nevada can’t decide among, the rest of the MW is populated with unproven, first-year starters – or veterans such as Air Force’s Nate Romine and Hawaii’s Ikaika Woolsey who aren’t asked to do much in the passing game.
Bottom line: The MW of 2016 is a long, long way from the wacky WAC.
Bottom line: The Mountain West of 2016 is a long, long way from the wacky WAC.
“It’s all cyclical, and I think most teams strive for that balance,” DeRuyter said. “But right now, there are definitely more teams in our conference and around the country that emphasize running the football.”
What does this mean for a Bulldogs defense that has shown improvement under new coordinator Lorenzo Ward? It means stopping the run will carry a higher premium than ever, especially during conference play. It also means there’s a very real possibility Toledo’s Logan Woodside and Tulsa’s Evans will be the best passing quarterbacks they’ll face all season.
So if Fresno State’s starting free safety wants to join cornerbacks Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis in the interception column, the next two weeks will be a prime opportunity.
“I finally get to be in the pass game,” Brown said. “I like to run in the alley and make tackles, but I want some picks, too.”
Which is why Brown stayed after practice catching passes from a machine. A couple of weeks from now, he may want to switch to a tackling dummy.
FRESNO STATE AT TOLEDO
- Saturday: Noon at the Glass Bowl (26,038)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Rockets 2-0
- TV/radio: KSEE (Ch. 24.1), ESPN3 online/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Fresno State leads 2-0, including a 55-54 double-overtime road win in 2008.