Didn’t that look familiar?
New season, same new-and-improved Bulldogs.
All the chess pieces remained on the board, and yet it was only natural to wonder: Can Fresno State build upon last year’s stunning reversal? Will the Bulldogs play with the same soundness and unity? Was 2017 just a giddy mirage?
In three words, yes, yes and no.
The Week 1 opponent was Idaho, so let’s not get carried away. Every team remaining on the schedule (with the possible exception of San Jose State) is better than the Vandals, meaning the 79-13 final score cannot be grafted onto any other Saturdays.
But we did learn a few things that should have pleased and excited the 31,170 in attendance at Bulldog Stadium, as well as those fans out of town for the holiday weekend or still on the fence.
“We want to show the Valley that last year wasn’t a hoax,” cornerback Tank Kelly said. “We’re here to stay, this is Fresno State football.”
● Coach Jeff Tedford and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer purposefully kept the play-calling vanilla, simply because there was no reason to show future opponents anything more than necessary.
Which meant Marcus McMaryion didn’t need to dazzle. The senior quarterback just had to be efficient (19 of 26 for 207 yards) while avoiding mistakes (zero turnovers). He managed both, while looking in total command.
The bigger takeaway was the improved play of backup Jorge Reyna, albeit in garbage time. If something happens to McMaryion, all may not be lost.
● A ground game that was fairly pedestrian last season – and missing leading rusher Ronnie Rivers – produced 5.4 yards per attempt and seven touchdowns against a fairly beefy Idaho front.
Jordan Mims, who scored three of them, will probably wind up as Fresno State’s leading rusher provided he stays healthy. But on this night, four other backs gained more yards than him. That’s a good sign.
● The defense didn’t experience any drop-off from what we saw (and still can’t fully comprehend) a year ago. Idaho managed one play of consequence, a 73-yard touchdown pass against an obvious blown coverage, but little else. Fresno State picked off five passes, broke up four more and allowed 3.2 yards per rush attempt.
If anyone thought Orlondo Steinauer smuggled the secrets to success back to Canada, think again.
“Everything is the same on defense,” Kelly said. “It’s all about the team and who is here.”
The only caveat I’d affix here is that both Vandals quarterbacks were awful. Like really awful.
● The defensive staff, led by new coordinator Bert Watts, found a weakness on Idaho’s field-goal unit and tore it open.
Because it was the first game, the Bulldogs weren’t certain the Vandals would line up and block the same way. But they did, allowing Kelly and Mykal Walker to come off the edge and snuff out two field goals.
“We don’t take plays off on field goals, that is the thing,” Tedford said. “It is not a play off, it is a chance to make a play. That effort gave us two big plays tonight.”
Both times the football wound up in the hands of Jaron Bryant, who raced for touchdowns of 74 and 71 yards.
You might remember Bryant scoring the clinching touchdown, on an interception return of a tipped pass, during last year’s Hawaii Bowl. Some guys have the knack.
“When I see green, I’m going to take off running straight,” Bryant said.
● The blocked kick wasn’t Kelly’s sole contribution. He picked off two passes, returning one for a touchdown, broke up three more and made five tackles.
The senior also gave some charming quotes at the press conference, the importance of which can never be underestimated.
When I asked what flaw the Bulldogs saw while studying Idaho’s field-goal unit, Kelly’s reply was a whopper.
“(Tight ends) Coach (Scott) Thompson calls it the ‘Big Fish’, and we found our Big Fish on their field goal team. So we attacked the Big Fish.”
Wait. What’s the Big Fish?
“A Big Fish is someone who shows weakness, has the wrong footing or isn’t blocking down,” Kelly said. “They are the Big Fish on the market, that’s who we want to attack.”
Harpoon in hand, evidently.
● Fresno State did not commit a turnover, or a penalty in the first half.
● While not exactly packing the house, enough fans filled the Sunken Bowl on Barstow so that when The Wave broke out midway through the second quarter it didn’t look ridiculous.
Now if someone can just turn up the volume.
“It seemed like there were a lot of people there, but it’s not really loud,” Tedford said afterword. “We can do a lot better. I appreciate all the people there, but we can really make it where it’s a lot more difficult on the other team.”
Fresno State made it plenty difficult on Idaho. If the Bulldogs do likewise to Minnesota and UCLA the next two weeks, Tedford should get his wish Sept. 29 against Toledo.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee