With one month to go in college football’s regular season, Fresno State finds itself in a compromised position.
To have any realistic chance of defending their Mountain West Conference championship and ensuring a bowl berth, the Bulldogs must have a 4-0 finish.
Except a 4-0 finish is the last thing that should be on anyone’s mind. Particularly anyone wearing a white helmet with patriotic-themed Bulldog logo decals on Saturday night.
Fresno State could go 4-0, sure. If first-time starting quarterback Zack Greenlee sparks the passing game, Marteze Waller gets 20-25 carries and the defense decides to make up for eight games’ worth of missed tackles and turnover chances.
But if Greenlee struggles, Waller remains underutilized and things on defense continue per usual, fat chance. In that scenario, 4-0 is impossible and 2-2 more likely. And only because three of the remaining games are at home.
Fresno State should handle a banged-up Wyoming squad Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium. Still, that’s far from a guarantee. To make a case for the Cowboys, all anyone has to do is utter these four letters in succession: U-N-L-V.
Meaning if the Bulldogs can lose to UNLV, they can lose to anyone.
Which gets back to my original point about the pointlessness of projecting the final month. With this team, they’re as useless as thigh pads on a kicker.
It has been two weeks since Fresno State trudged off the blue turf unable to do much of anything in the fourth quarter against Boise State.
Have they used that time to get better or mope? Coach Tim DeRuyter believes it’s the former.
“When you look at it, we’ve lost two league games,” DeRuyter said before a recent practice. “One was in overtime and the other was a tie game in the fourth quarter. So I don’t know that we’re that far away despite the way we’ve played at times.”
I asked DeRuyter which side of the football, offense or defense, has the greater chance for improvement between now and the end of the regular season.
He wouldn’t answer that one specifically, but the answer he gave addressed both.
“On defense, clearly we’ve got to make improvements in tackling and getting off the field on third down,” DeRuyter said. “Offensively, we’ve got to be more consistent. At times when we get in a rhythm we look pretty good. It’s just not consistent enough.
“Our running game I think has improved dramatically. But our throwing game, from passing accuracy to blocking on the perimeter to running routes, has got to get better.”
This was the right time for Greenlee’s ascension. Besides the extra first-team practice reps, he gets to play in front of home fans and against a Wyoming defense that’s not especially fearsome or exotic.
The knock on Greenlee during his first year in the program, his redshirt 2013 season, was that he wasn’t fully engaged. There were murmurs he was slow to pick up the offense and didn’t devote the necessary hours in the film room.
Even Derek Carr weighed in.
Near the end of last season, when Carr was asked if his backups were picking his brain and about plays and reads, his answers made it clear Brian Burrell and Myles Carr were doing more.
Derek Carr made a point to say Greenlee finally started coming around in the last month. As if he realized this valuable resource wouldn’t last forever.
Clearly, Greenlee has matured and improved. DeRuyter and offensive coordinator Dave Schramm stubbornly stuck by Burrell for eight games; they aren’t the types who make a change for change’s sake. The expectation is for Greenlee to bring consistency to the passing game, and I’m not just talking about deep throws like the one he made against Southern Utah’s second-stringers.
The most important attribute for any quarterback in a spread offense is being able to recognize and attack the defense’s weakness. Oftentimes, it’s the cornerback playing 5 yards off the receiver.
Last season, the Bulldogs got 5 yards on quick screens and hitches. This year, they go for no gain or 1 yard or, as was the case against UNLV, get thrown at the receiver’s feet and ruled a backward pass.
While Greenlee might be a more accurate passer than Burrell, he’s not as spry a runner. The redshirt freshman feels more at home in the pocket, meaning there will be fewer designed quarterback runs.
Fresno State cannot afford to go pass happy, so the end result should be more carries for Waller. Which would be a grand idea, as I’ve previously written.
Defensively, well, there’s always hope that things will finally click for certain guys. Or that the recent spate of physical practices pays off.
When it mattered most against Boise State, during the Broncos’ decisive 17-play touchdown drive, it was more of the same.
“In some of the third downs, and one fourth down, we’ve got a defender able to make a play one-on-one and not with a ton of space, just get the guy down, and we don’t do it,” DeRuyter said. “We’ve got to continue to drill fundamentals or go to someone else.”
Quarterback changes, one-on-one tackling, drilling fundamentals. The Bulldogs have much to do in November. Fixate on 4-0 isn’t one of them.