Third-down defense has been a problem for Fresno State all season, games one through seven. For a time, it was ranked last in the nation and it still is allowing FBS opponents to move the sticks on 56.99 percent of their third-down plays, ranking 126th of 128 teams.
But in the second half of the Bulldogs’ victory over UNLV, that might have started to change. After allowing the Rebels to convert seven of their first 10 third-down plays, the Bulldogs dug in a bit more, played smarter, played with more discipline, and allowed UNLV to convert only one of its final six, a big reason they were able to come back from a two-touchdown deficit.
To keep that run working against the Air Force, defensive coordinator Nick Toth said they will have to throw some different things at the Falcons than they have in other option matchups.
“What we don’t want to do is line up and play what we played three years ago,” he said. “They’ve seen that. We don’t want to line up and play what we played against Cal Poly. We don’t want to line up and play what we played against New Mexico. They’ve seen it. They’re prepared for that. The stuff we’re going to do this year is going to be a little different.”
But to get off the field on third down, first and second will be paramount in this matchup. The Air Force is ranked third in the Mountain West Conference in third-down conversions, moving the sticks on 43.4 percent of their opportunities. But when in third-and-long, the success rate plummets. On running plays when needing seven or more yards for a first down, they are at 36.4 percent (4 of 11) and on passing plays they are at 17.6 percent (3 of 17) while completing eight passes.
No matter the third-down distance, the Bulldogs need to continue to be as sharp as they were in the third and fourth quarters against the Rebels.
“Especially on third-down-and-medium, the last five that we’ve given up have been have been a lack of discipline,” Toth said. “One of them was a lack of discipline for me to call the right call. I didn’t trust that they were going to do it, so I was bad with the call. But the other ones were, ‘Hey, we know what’s coming,’ and our eyes weren’t in the right spot, we weren’t aligned right.
“There has been a little bit of that and more on third-and-medium than anything, so that has been frustrating. The last two games they ran exactly what we knew they were going to run on third-and-medium, so we have to make sure that’s one of those instances where we can’t take chances there. Trust what we have going on, trust the preparation.”
Prepping for option – Fresno State last played Air Force in 2012, but it has faced some other option teams that thrive off their cut blocking, squaring off against New Mexico in 2012, ’13 and ’14 and Cal Poly in ’13.
In the prep week before all five of those games the Bulldogs did drill work, using pads or live bodies to get them used to fighting off blockers trying to cut them down at the knees. They didn’t have their scout team do any live cut blocking against the defense in team periods. This week, though, they are.
“I think Air Force and Navy, too, they probably set the standard for how well they cut, how much pride they take in cut blocking,” Coach Tim DeRuyter said. “If you’re not working on it every single day, you’re going to get cut, and you’ll still get cut even though you’re working on it because your scout teamers don’t know the techniques of how well they cut block. But you have to work it because their big plays come as a result of getting guys on the ground. That’s something they take tremendous pride in and we have to take tremendous pride that we can defeat the cut block and go get the ball carrier.”
Working it on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, one thing is clear. The Bulldogs’ defensive staff gets immediate feedback of how well the players are doing, be it the line, the linebackers or the secondary.
“The nice thing is, when they cut block you and you don’t do a good job against it, guys know it right away,” DeRuyter said. “They’re on the ground. We can’t simulate it as well as they can do it, so if our scout team is doing it to us it’s going to be ugly on Saturday. It’s immediate feedback, and our guys have to learn how to play with a good pad level and play with their hands.”
Recruiting trail – With a bye week following the game at the Air Force, the Bulldogs’ assistant coaches will hit the recruiting road on Monday and Tuesday. Three coaches will leave right after the game for Texas with the other six returning home with the team and heading out with five in California and one in Arizona.
Using Monday and Tuesday during an evaluation period is a change for this staff during a bye week, but it provides a better opportunity to get into high schools and get evaluations done.
“Typically, we’ve come back, given guys Monday off, gone maybe Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and then gone out Friday day and Saturday, but with is playing on the following Thursday it kind of just matched up better doing it this way I thought,” DeRuyter said.
“You can go in and evaluate, really talk to the coaches, the counselors. You have more time to do a better evaluation on the guys that you already have identified, and then you do have more of a chance to see some guys that pop up as seniors.”
Et cetera – Junior Da’Mari Scott has made some interesting decisions on kickoff returns the past couple of weeks, but DeRuyter said they are sticking with him because of an explosive element he brings to the role. Scott does have kickoff returns of 66 yards against San Jose State and 45 yards against Utah State, and is averaging 22.7 yards on 15 returns. “He’ll be our lead guy,” DeRuyter said. “I know he returned some last year, but he wasn’t necessarily our lead guy. I think he is playing with a different edge and he gives us a breakaway threat just because of how hard he’s running and how hard he’s playing. Now, he has to do a much better job making decisions. The other day, again, he brought one out when he got turned around. He has to make a better decision. But until you put a guy in certain positions you don’t know what they’re going to do and I think with more reps he’ll make better decisions.”
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is known to drop a few interesting quotes out there from time to time. He did again, when asked about the Academy moving a game against New Mexico next season to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. “That’s not for a coach to comment on,” he told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “It’s just like it would be if you were lieutenant colonel and you’re on your seventh deployment in Vietnam and you see some things. You see there’s no way democracy is going to gain traction here and maybe you’ve lost some of your own troops and some of your own men in battle, but yet that’s not your call. … That’s a bigger position that comes from beyond you. Your job is to serve and it’s your job to follow orders, as it would be for that lieutenant colonel, too. Maybe if you realize it’s 1972 and we’ve lost 52,000 of my fellow compatriots and you see things from a little different viewpoint and yet that’s not your job. Your job is not to be that aware or have that kind of perspective. It’s not. Your job is to follow orders. … To answer your question directly, it’s not the coach’s job. It’s just not your job. As a soldier and as a troop, you’re right at the tip of spear, you know what gives you the best chance to win or maybe to obliterate the enemy. But you job is to serve and follow orders and you put both heels and your ties at the 45 and you salute. That’s your job. That’s your job as a soldier and as a coach, too.”
The Bulldogs are 0-3 on the road this season, losing at Ole Miss, at San Jose State and at San Diego State. They have dropped nine of their last 11 away from Bulldog Stadium including the Hawaii Bowl loss to Rice. Fresno State last won on the road on Nov. 22, last season, winning 40-20 at Nevada.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada