Fresno State

Bulldogs’ failure against the run in 43-24 loss at Air Force is an ominous sign

That the Fresno State offense is having problems right now is not much of a surprise.

The Bulldogs had so much to replace from their 2018 title team from quarterback Marcus McMaryion, four starters on the offensive line and three of its top four receivers including KeeSean Johnson, the school’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards.

There were bound to be some growing pains, and some injuries have not helped.

But the issues the Bulldogs’ defense had against the run on Saturday in a 43-24 loss at Air Force to open Mountain West Conference play are far more troubling.

For Fresno State to contend for a spot in the conference championship game for a third year in a row it was going to have to lead with its defense as it did in 2017, when the Bulldogs ranked only eighth in the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game.

The Bulldogs (2-3, 0-1 in the MW) won some games that year with pedestrian point totals – 27 at San Jose State and at San Diego State, 20 against BYU, 13 at Wyoming. Since Fresno State joined the Mountain West in 2012, only one conference team with 10 or more wins in a season averaged fewer points per game – Utah State was at 26.9 in 2014.

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Air Force fullback Timothy Jackson is stopped after a short gain by Fresno State defensive back Wylan Free, left, and linebacker Mykal Walker in the first half of Saturday’s game. David Zalubowski AP

Fresno State did that by stopping the run.

But at Air Force …

“Not very good at all,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “You have to give Air Force a lot of credit. They pretty much dominated us. We couldn’t get off the field defensively.

“The first half, I mean, we hung in there, but the second half we couldn’t get off the field and we couldn’t sustain drives on offense. They used a lot of clock in the second half and so you just have to give them credit. They did a phenomenal job. They executed really well and we couldn’t stop them all night.”

The Falcons (4-2, 2-1) just rolled right over Fresno State. The triple-option offense certainly is a factor, but the Bulldogs did have a bye week and two extra practices of prep time for it.

A key number in the game: 10.

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Fresno State offensive lineman Bula Schmidt, back, congratulates wide receiver Emoryie Edwards after his touchdown reception against Air Force in the first half of Saturday’s game. David Zalubowski AP

The Falcons ran only 10 third-down plays and it’s not so much that they converted on five of them or that they were able to move the sticks on fourth down four times including one touchdown.

It’s that Fresno State had a hard time even getting to third down. The last time they forced a team into fewer third downs was 2017 and a 48-16 loss at Washington; the Huskies ran seven plays on third down. Before that it was 2010 in the Humanitarian Bowl and a 40-17 loss to Northern Illinois, those Huskies ran just six.

Air Force averaged 4.9 yards per rush, which is not a terribly scary number. But it was play after play after play, and the Bulldogs couldn’t stop it.

It was 340 yards on 69 plays, only one of which went for 20 yards or more.

“Disappointing,” linebacker Mykal Walker said. “We didn’t play our brand of football. We came out here and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.

“We talked all for the last two weeks about how we have to be perfect out here, do our responsibility, do our jobs and we didn’t do our jobs out here.”

Fresno State deployed Walker outside in this game, not at middle linebacker. The Bulldogs’ defensive staff liked the combo of Justin Rice and Arron Mosby inside and Walker’s ability to make a play coming off the edge. That allowed the Falcons to run to the opposite side that Walker was on often, but as Tedford pointed out they had plenty of success whether they were running into the boundary, to the field or between the tackles.

“They got on the edge a lot,” he said. “We didn’t tackle very well in space. It’s almost like we were thinking too much. We missed some tackles. They just beat our butt.”

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Fresno State wide receiver Zane Pope breaks free from Air Force defensive back James Jones IV after pulling in a pass in the first half of Saturday’s game. David Zalubowski AP

The Bulldogs next have UNLV, and it might sound odd given the Rebels’ football history, but there are few matchups in the Mountain West that would be tougher. The Rebels are one of the few teams in the conference that has had success rushing the ball at Fresno State the past two seasons:

▪ UNLV 185.0 in two games

    ▪ Boise State 155.0 in four games

      ▪ New Mexico 128.5 in two games

        ▪ San Diego State 114.5 in two games

          ▪ Hawaii 103.0 in two games

            UNLV this year might also have found a quarterback who can complement that run game with some plays in the passing game. Redshirt freshman Kenyon Oblad was 11 of 16 for 172 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday in a 34-10 victory at Vanderbilt, an SEC team.

            But asked about this week and UNLV, the immediate focus was elsewhere – it was inward.

            “We need to look in the mirror,” said Walker, who had 11 total tackles including five solo and one tackle for loss. “Before we even (start to look to next week and UNLV) we have to look at ourselves. This right here was just, quite frankly, it was embarrassing. The way we played today was not good, just not the way we play football out here. We have to look at ourselves first before we start doing any other stuff, but our goals are still ahead of us.

            “We talked in the locker room, everybody kept their head up, will stay together, and we’re going to make a run for this thing.”

            By the numbers

            25 – Yards of offense for the Bulldogs in the second half. They had only 268 total yards in the game, the fewest under Tedford. It also was the fewest yards allowed by Air Force against an FBS opponent since it allowed 178 to Navy last season.

            24:35 – Time of possession in the second half for the Falcons, who ran 42 plays to just 13 for the Bulldogs and rolled up 198 yards.

            1 – Pass attempt by Air Force in the second half

            7 – Tackles including a team-high two tackles for loss by Bulldogs defensive end Alex Dumais in his first career start.

            55 – Rushing yards between Bulldogs running backs Ronnie Rivers (9 for 45) and Josh Hokit (3 for 10). Rivers gained 26 of those yards on one second-quarter run.

            20-2 and 22-3 – Fresno State was 20-1 under Tedford when scoring first in a game and 22-2 when leading at halftime – quarterback Jorge Reyna hit Derrion Grim on a 4-yard touchdown pass on the Bulldogs’ opening drive, and Fresno State led 24-22 at the break.

            340 – Rushing yards for Air Force, the most allowed by Fresno State since UNLV rolled up 364 in a 45-20 victory over the Bulldogs on Oct. 1, 2016. The 340 yards also is more than the Bulldogs had allowed in their past three games combined – Minnesota 146, Sacramento State 12 and New Mexico State 105.

            4 – Fourth-down conversions in four tries for Air Force. The Falcons punted the ball one time.

            13 – Consecutive completions to start the game by Reyna.

            Minus 8 – Scoring differential in the third quarter for the Bulldogs this season. A year ago, Fresno State dominated opponents coming out of halftime, outscoring them by a 157-24 margin, plus-133.

            Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada

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