A look at the Fresno State-Toledo matchup in Week 3 of the 2016 college football season.
FRESNO STATE AT TOLEDO
Saturday: Noon at the Glass Bowl (26,038)
Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Rockets 2-0
TV/radio: KSEE (Ch. 24.1), ESPN3 online/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: 77 degrees, scattered thunderstorms
Keys to victory
1. Run the ball – Toledo is seventh in the MAC in rushing defense and it has faced Arkansas State and an FCS team in Maine, which are averaging 3 and 3.4 yards per rush and 83.5 and 105 yards per game. To take advantage, the line has to find a rhythm much faster than it did last week; Chason Virgil needs to be more active in the zone-read game to turn the numbers in the Bulldogs’ favor; and the backs, particularly Dontel James, need to read blocks better and finish runs. Fresno State hasn’t put that all together for seven of their eight quarters of football.
2. Tackle – Toledo has racked up the big plays, including nine of 40 or more yards (two runs, seven passes), which is the most in the nation. Not all of those pass plays are deep throws – Cody Thompson (37.0 yards per catch), Corey Jones (17.1) and Jon’Vea Johnson (39.0) all can turn a bubble screen or a short crossing route into big trouble. Fresno State has done a solid job getting tacklers to the football but also has missed some opportunities to make plays. It can’t against the most explosive offense it has faced to this point.
3. Be sharp – The offense with Virgil at quarterback is in development and through the first two games it has struggled to execute, not only at Nebraska but against FCS Sacramento State. Nebraska, understandable. Sacramento State, not so much. Toledo has some glossy defensive stats built against suspect competition, and the Bulldogs should have opportunities to string together plays and series. Virgil needs to be much more efficient in the pass game: He is completing only 52.7 percent of his passes with an efficiency rating of 106.87 – 99th and 100th in the nation.
Fresno State has improved its third-down defense considerably from a year ago, allowing Nebraska and Sacramento State to convert only 8 of 27 plays into a first down (29.6 percent).
A big part of that has been the defense against the pass, with the Bulldogs dialing up some pressure and relying on senior cornerbacks Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis to make plays to the outside. Opponents have completed 5 of 15 third-down passes, three for first downs.
“When you have some veteran guys back there, it helps,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We’re getting pressure on quarterbacks, we’re varying looks up, and I think (defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward) has done a really nice job there mixing up the calls.”
Toledo, though, will be a rough test. The Rockets are leading the Mid-American Conference and are tied for second in the nation in third-down conversions (20 of 32, 62.5 percent).
They are averaging 9.1 yards on 10 third-down rushing plays, picking up nine firsts. And quarterback Logan Woodside has hit 14 of 21 third-down passes (66.7 percent), averaging 14 yards per attempt with 10 first downs.
Last season, the Bulldogs allowed opponents to convert 46.4 percent of their third-down plays (84 of 181), worst in the Mountain West and 118th of 128 teams nationally.
Weather or not – There is a 60 percent chance of rain in Toledo on Saturday. To prepare, the Bulldogs’ offense practiced Thursday and Friday with footballs dunked in a bucket of water before every play they ran in team periods.
DeRuyter had some fun as well. The coach was using a water bottle to squirt quarterback Chason Virgil and the running backs while they were preparing to run a play.
Over the top – Woodside has seven passes of 40 or more yards in two games, including touchdowns of 89, 86 and 64 yards.
A year ago, Toledo had seven pass plays of 40 or more yards in 12 games. In 2014, they had 11. In 2013 and ’12, they had 10.
Put to the test – The Bulldogs continue to develop Virgil, but he is not the only skill-position starter still making up ground.
Running back Dontel James, though a junior, came into the season with eight carries at this level. He had three as a true freshman, gaining 5 yards. He had five as a redshirt freshman, gaining 8 yards, after securing a hardship waiver for a foot injury suffered in his first year at Fresno State.
A year ago, he was at Riverside City College, where he played in seven games, rushing for 483 yards on 97 carries and, no, that’s not quite the same as Division I FBS football.
But the Bulldogs’ coaching staff was encouraged by his second half against Sacramento State. He ran nine times for 59 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown.
“I think we tended to wear them down a little in the second half, which created some more holes for him to burst through, and it was good to see him read things and really accelerate,” DeRuyter said.
“His pad level is still too high, and a lot of those runs, he has to read it and make a cut. I think it will become more natural the more he does it.”
Zoned in or out? – Fresno State has not played in the Eastern time zone since a 28-20 loss at No. 8 Cincinnati in 2009. With a 3 p.m. kickoff in Toledo, noon in California, there will be adjustments.
“Every time we leave, we try to arrive at 4 to 5 o’clock, but with the three-hour time difference, we’re going to get there a little later than that,” DeRuyter said. “But I think what is an advantage for us, practicing in the mornings now, our guys are used to getting up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning.
“We’ll get all of our work stuff done here in the morning (Friday), start our meetings at 6:30 in the morning, which will be 9:30 out there, trying as closely as possible to acclimate your body to that time. When we get there, we’ll immediately go on East Coast time, and our schedule will reflect that.”
Undecided at tackle – Fresno State offensive left tackle Christian Cronk was pulled from the starting lineup in the second half against Sacramento State and replaced by Logan Hughes.
Cronk has taken the majority of the reps with the first-team offense this week, but who starts Saturday at left tackle was still to be determined toward the end of the week.
“We definitely want to develop that rotation of guys that we can count on, and I think Logan has merited some more reps,” DeRuyter said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The Bulldogs also worked some different interior combinations.
Et cetera – Toledo will throw some tempo at the Bulldogs, but, like a week ago with Sacramento State, they are not expecting the Rockets to go at a breakneck pace. There is some concern about being able to sub out defensive linemen and linebackers if caught in an extended drive, but Ward said the Bulldogs are well prepared because they see tempo in every practice.
“That’s the good thing about our system here,” he said. “Our offense has been hurry-up since Day One going back to spring ball. The hurry-up is not a factor for us in what we’re going to do. We’re going to run our defense, because we’ve been used to getting lined up in practice in a hurry.”
▪ The Bulldogs last week had five more players see their first game reps, bringing the number this season to 26. Of that, 15 are freshmen (five true freshmen). Debuting last week were wideout Frank Dalena and offensive linemen Zack Kinninger, Jaleel Carter, Ryan Popolizio and Nick Aibuedefe.
▪ Woodside has a passing efficiency rating of 206.97. The Bulldogs’ quarterbacks, Virgil and Zach Kline, are a combined 109.8, with Virgil at 106.87 and Kline at 129.46.
▪ Last week, Fresno State faced an offensive line that had no seniors in the two deep and five starters who averaged 6-foot-3 and 279 pounds. This week, the Bulldogs will face one that has three senior starters and averages 6-5, 305.
▪ The Bulldogs under DeRuyter are 15-1 when rushing for at least 200 yards. Toledo last week gave up 170 to Maine, but the big 2-0-0 might not faze the Rockets, who won both games last season in which they allowed 200 or more.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada