We’re one state over from his native South Dakota, but for Kalen DeBoer this will feel familiar.
Familiar football weather. Temperatures in the low to mid 30s. A brisk wind. No snow in the forecast but no guarantee it won’t.
“If it’s 35 degrees and the sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day to play football,” the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator said this week, before both of us departed the central San Joaquin Valley for the Rocky Mountains. “The guys will get a sweat going, and they won’t even know otherwise.”
Fresno State has surpassed every expectation during this remarkable turnaround season. The team some Las Vegas Sportsbooks gave a 300 to 1 chance to reach the Mountain West championship game is now one victory (or a San Diego State loss) shy of vaulting those odds.
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To get there Saturday afternoon, in the harsh environs of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, the Bulldogs may or may not have to overcome Josh Allen. The status of the Cowboys’ star quarterback is iffy after the Firebaugh native sustained a shoulder injury last week. But they will most certainly have to overcome cold weather and high altitude – not to mention the nation’s most opportunistic defense and one of the toughest to score against.
Good thing Fresno State is built for that brand of ball.
“I think we’re more built now as the season goes along than we were at the beginning of the year,” DeBoer said. “We’ve become a pretty physical football team and take a lot of pride in it.”
Our offensive line takes a lot of pride in being physical, and that’s going to be a tough challenge this week. Because that’s the mindset (Wyoming has), too.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer
Since the start of conference play, games have followed a similar pattern. The Bulldogs jump out to a halftime lead, usually sizable, and spend the second half playing from ahead.
The sole exception was UNLV, which was 9-9 at halftime and the only game Fresno State didn’t win during this seven-game stretch.
“We’ve been in that situation a lot,” DeBoer agreed. “The ultimate goal is winning, so a lot of times your job as an offense is just finishing off games.”
There’s an excellent chance that Saturday plays out the same. Even with Allen behind center, Wyoming is not a good offense. The Cowboys rank last in the MW (and 127th in the nation) in yards per game, ninth in rushing, ninth in passing and 10th in points.
Wyoming is 7-3 overall because its defense has forced a remarkable 27 takeaways while the offense seldom turns the ball over and makes the most of its own red-zone opportunities.
So unless something fluky happens, we’re set for another low-scoring defensive battle with the Bulldogs protecting a second-half lead.
27 takeaways by Wyoming’s defense this season, No. 1 among FBS teams
Which DeBoer is perfectly fine with, even though those situations limit the variety of plays he can call as well as his unit’s opportunity to produce points and roll up fat yardage totals.
“I think that’s where Coach O and I see eye to eye,” DeBoer said of Bulldogs defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer. “All he really cares about is winning, too. He’s trying to get his guys off the field as fast as possible, but when I know they need a little bit of a blow I change it up to try to help him out.
“That team game we’re playing right now is helping us, especially when we get leads in the first half. The defense is getting off the field in the first half and I’m able to finish it off in the third and fourth quarters.”
What that means is a steady diet of handoffs, with a play-action pass mixed in now and again to keep the rush honest.
The aim is obviously to produce first downs and ultimately points. But if quarterback Marcus McMaryion waits till the final ticks of the play clock to snap the ball, even going three-and-out can strip away precious clock.
The aim is obviously to produce first downs and ultimately points. But even going three-and-out can strip away precious clock.
“Sometimes you don’t even get the first down but you still ran off 2 1/2 minutes – and they need three scores,” DeBoer said. “You just do the math. You also get a feel of what the other team is capable of doing.”
DeBoer also gets a feel for what to do by sitting two seats away from Steinauer in the coaches’ box.
“We aren’t necessarily talking, but I can get a vibe,” DeBoer said. “I can hear by the tone of his voice or by aggressive play calls. He may not even know it, but I can tell. If we’re up by three scores and he’s pinning it back or playing it soft, I can kind of tell what I need to do.”
The term for this is complementary football, which is often associated with winning football.
And complementary football travels, whether you’re playing in balmy, rainy Honolulu or the frigid heights of Laramie.
“I’ve coached a lot of football games in weather like this,” said DeBoer, sounding like a man who knows what’s coming.