Before he became an NFL Network analyst and before he spent 12 seasons in the NFL, Nate Burleson played wide receiver at Nevada.
Burleson talked as good a game as he played and was unfailingly honest. I’ll always remember a 2002 interview in which he described Fresno State as the Wolf Pack’s older sibling in the Western Athletic Conference.
“Fresno State is a tough, hard-hitting team, and they’ve been the big brothers of the conference for a long time,” said Burleson, who at the time was leading the nation in receptions and receiving yards. “We’re not too young to be in this conference, and we’re not the little brothers anymore.”
Oh, but they were. Fresno State won the game 38-30 as part of a six-game winning streak over Nevada (1999-2004) that extended to eight wins in nine seasons (1999-2007 except ’05).
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In those days, the Bulldogs played a physical brand of football, one that gave them a certain reputation. Opponents never dared walk down the Bulldog Stadium ramp without their chin straps securely fastened.
A lot can change in 13 years, and apparently has.
They’re a physical team. They want to knock you off the ball.
Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth on Nevada
Now it’s Nevada that comes in here Thursday night with a reputation for tough, rugged play.
Fresno State? Not so much. The Bulldogs run a spread offense that’s more finesse than physical. They have a defense that’s being pounded for 268.4 rushing yards per game against FBS opponents.
Now it’s Nevada that gets described in those physical terms.
“They’re a physical team,” Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth said of the Wolf Pack. “They want to knock you off the ball.”
Not to be outdone, coach Tim DeRuyter praised Nevada’s “downhill runners” James Butler and Don Jackson as one of the “best running back combinations in the league.”
Remember when Fresno State used to have downhill runners?
While he was at it, DeRuyter praised Nevada defensive coordinator Scott Boone for instilling “a very physical presence in their front. They really get after you.”
Remember when the Bulldogs were known for those things, too?
Thursday night is a chance to reclaim some of that ground.
268.4 Average rushing yards allowed by Fresno State to FBS opponents
Fresno State and Nevada have played every year since 1998 and as conference mates since 2000. Not until a sophomore quarterback named Colin Kaepernick began his reign of terror did the Wolf Pack gain any traction in the head-to-head series, winning four straight from 2008 to 2011.
DeRuyter’s arrival in 2012 allowed the Bulldogs to regain the upper hand. Fresno State has beaten Nevada three straight times, and none of the games were particularly close.
Particularly galling (from Nevada’s point of view) was last year’s 40-20 mauling in Reno, which paved the Bulldogs’ path to the Mountain West championship game and prevented the Wolf Pack from going. (Nevada would have owned the tiebreaker edge.)
Afterward, Nevada’s irascible coach, Brian Polian, said his team “laid an egg.” And by the sound of things, 12 months haven’t done much to salve the wound.
“It still bothers me,” Polian said this week. “I’m not going to speak for the players, but it bothers me.”
So Nevada, which enjoyed the same bye week as the Bulldogs, comes in with the extra motive of revenge. The game is also vital to the Wolf Pack’s bowl eligibility.
What motivation does Fresno State have left?
“The goal is the same whether you’re undefeated or 2-6,” DeRuyter replied when someone (OK, me) posed that question to him. “When you grind and prepare for 12 months and you only get 12 guaranteed opportunities, you relish each and every one.”
By “relish,” I’m pretty sure Tim DeRuyter meant great appreciation for and not the condiment. Still, it’s fair to question how much mustard his team can muster at this point.
By “relish,” I’m pretty sure DeRuyter meant great appreciation for and not the condiment. Still, it’s fair to question how much mustard his team can muster at this point.
Last time we saw the Bulldogs, they were surrendering six straight touchdowns to Air Force and looking equal parts defeated and bewildered.
A complete spiritual rejuvenation is asking a lot – probably too much. Seeing all those rows of empty seats before kickoff won’t stoke any fires, either.
Despite all that, Fresno State is capable of winning. Mostly because if Nevada can lose to 1-8 Wyoming and 2-6 UNLV (the Bulldogs’ only FBS scalp), it can lose to anyone.
Quarterback Kilton Anderson must establish some semblance of rhythm with his receivers. The defensive front seven must tackle better and with more discipline than what we’ve seen.
Most of all, though, Fresno State has to be able to match up physically – as hard as that is to fathom for anyone who has watched these two programs go head-to-head over the past 15 years.
“Little brother” isn’t such a weakling anymore.
Haven’t spoken to Burleson in years, but you can bet he’ll be watching.
Midweek measure-up game
FRESNO STATE VS. NEVADA
- Thursday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 2-6, 1-4; Wolf Pack 4-4, 2-2
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)