The most veteran of Fresno State’s defensive players strokes his bushy red beard trying to come up with an answer to the question everyone has been asking.
Nate Madsen just can’t put his finger on it.
Why are the Bulldogs suddenly so much better, especially on his side of the ball?
“Even I’m asking myself,” said the senior defensive tackle, who has made 32 career starts. “I’m not a coach or working for ESPN, so it’s kind of hard for me to analyze what goes on. All I can really say is that we’re working hard, and we’re excited about the results.”
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There are several components to Fresno State’s rapid turnaround under first-year coach Jeff Tedford. Let’s make that obvious point. Now that they have a quarterback (Marcus McMaryion) who can more consistently deliver the football to their talented receiving corps, the Bulldogs are much more potent on offensive. The line and running backs are better, too.
What you might expect from a team coached by a noted offensive mind.
But on the defensive side, no one knew what to make of coordinator Orlondo Steinauer and his background in the Canadian Football League.
So far, and apologies for mixing my sports metaphors, the unorthodox hire has been nothing short of a home run.
Fresno State hasn’t played a three-game stretch of defense like this, regardless of the opposition, in a long time.
Besides the final 2 minutes of the first half, the Bulldogs completely asphyxiated Nevada in the Mountain West opener. The following week, San Jose State mustered only 10 points and 205 yards on its home turf.
Both were indicators something was brewing. But hanging a doughnut on New Mexico while limiting the Lobos’ lauded triple option to its lowest rushing output since 2012?
No one saw that coming.
San Diego State featuring 1,000-yard rusher Rashaad Penny (yes, already) better watch out Saturday night, or they won’t know what hit them, either.
“It’s a product of hard work and scheme,” junior linebacker George Helmuth said. “When the coaches got here we had a real bad problem of not running to the football. Through spring, summer and fall camp that was a huge emphasis.
“Now we’re just absorbing what Coach O and the other coaches are teaching us and taking that onto the field. That’s what people see.”
Certainly the Bulldogs have a different, more varied plan of attack. Steinauer’s hybrid 4-3 utilizes multiple fronts and alignments, giving the quarterback and blockers more to think about on every play.
Defensive tackles like Madsen and fellow senior Malik Forrester (suspended by the MW office for Saturday’s first half) penetrate the backfield more than in the past. The ends, lined up in a 2-point stance, usually rush the passer but sometimes drop into coverage.
Sophomore Jeffrey Allison’s emergence at middle linebacker has been huge. He’s exactly the kind of thumper you want at that position. And then there’s Helmuth, the Clovis North product who has gone from special teams guy to starting Will linebacker thanks to his tackling and instincts.
In the secondary, Juju Hughes and Mike Bell have both adapted exceedingly well to strong and free safety after beginning their careers on the outside. Those are tremendous personnel moves by Steinauer and defensive backs coach J.D. Williams, knowing they had depth at corner with Jaron Bryant, Johnny Johnson and a much-improved Tank Kelly.
After years of being a punching bag, Fresno State is suddenly ranked 14th in the nation in rushing defense, 21st in total defense and 30th in points allowed – despite those collect-a-paycheck games at Alabama and Washington.
It’s way too early in the year to come out here and throw confetti.
Fresno State senior Nate Madsen, tempering enthusiasm about the Bulldogs’ defensive turnaround
“Yay,” Steinauer said with a grin. “Let’s make sure it continues.”
That’s about as much self-congratulation as you’re likely to get from the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator, at least during the season.
Much like his boss, Steinauer is not the kind of coach who will pat himself on the back or give pesky reporters much insight into his innermost thoughts.
The 44-year-old couldn’t be more pleasant about it. He’ll stand there, smile and happily engage in conversation … all while delivering an upper-division course in Coachspeak.
“I’m dancing around this because I’m not going to speak to what we’re looking to,” Steinauer replied last week to one of my questions about New Mexico. “Just being honest. What we’re doing is what we’re doing, and it’ll show up on game day.”
Steinauer then flashed his pearly whites, probably knowing he was right.
So why are the Bulldogs suddenly so much better on defense, despite having so many of the same players when they were terrible?
Part of it is the scheme. Part of it is conditioning and mindset. Part of it is belief and trust. Part of it is the personnel decisions.
All of that feeds into the collective. Now that players like Madsen have finally gotten a taste of winning, they want to lap up every drop. Without getting ahead of themselves.
“It’s just our overall attitude,” Madsen said. “We want to be great and we’re seeing the results game after game and that makes us feel good. But it’s way too early in the year to come out here and throw confetti. We haven’t won anything yet.”
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium (54,000)
- Records: Bulldogs 4-2, 3-0 Mountain West; Aztecs 6-1, 2-1
- Webcast/radio: CBSSN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Aztecs lost at home to Boise State on Saturday 31-14 and are in second place in the West Division. The Broncos shut down running back Rashaad Penny, who has been the Mountain West offensive player of the week four times this season. Penny gained just 53 yards on 21 plays and San Diego State, the two-time defending conference champion, had just 323 total yards in the loss, 83 of it coming on the ground. The Aztecs are leading the conference in total defense, allowing only 311.4 yards per game.