The talk afterward was about how close they were.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter called Saturday’s 48-41, double-overtime loss to Tulsa a game of inches, pulling out a well-worn cliché, and his football team definitely did make a good amount of progress and showed a solid resolve. But, headed into Mountain West Conference play Saturday at UNLV, the Bulldogs shouldn’t feel that they are any closer offensively or take any semblance of progress for granted because it might not be real. They scored a season high in points, passed for a season-high 276 yards and rolled up 453 yards of offense, their most in three games against FBS opponents. But a 31-0 lead like the one the Bulldogs lost to the Golden Hurricane doesn’t just disappear, and as they were building that advantage their inefficiency on offense still was showing.
Fresno State has completed only 51.3 percent of its passes this season, ranking in a tie for 117th in the nation. Of the three teams checking in there, the Bulldogs (80 of 156) have attempted 39 more passes than Rutgers (60 of 117) and 41 more than Central Florida (59 of 115).
Of the 32 plays Fresno State ran to score four touchdowns and kick a field goal, four accounted for 67.1 percent of its total yardage. There was the first one, when stumbling all over themselves only to have Jamire Jordan take a lateral, or a fumble as it officially was recorded because the football touched the ground, 44 yards for a score. There were 26- and 34-yard pass plays from quarterback Chason Virgil to Jordan and KeeSean Johnson and a 65-yard touchdown strike from Virgil to Jordan that was perfectly executed.
But more than half of the Bulldogs’ plays to that point went for 2 yards or less including 10 incomplete passes, and in the game 60.7 percent of their plays were below the 2-yard net.
That actually is a higher percentage than in their loss at Toledo (56.7 percent) and right around what it was in their loss at Nebraska (60.9 percent).
Virgil hit a season-low 46.7 percent of his passes, 21 of 45. Dontel James, the lead back, averaged only 3.1 yards on 21 rushes, gaining 65 yards. The Bulldogs converted 38.1 percent of their third-down plays by going 8 of 21, an improvement only in that they were 0 of 13 a week earlier at Toledo.
The difference is some big plays ended up in the end zone, that and a 23-yard drive for their second score after linebacker Jeff Camilli forced and cornerback Jamal Ellis pounced on a Tulsa fumble.
We’re doing some things right, but we’re just not there yet and we have to be because the league starts this week.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
And when the explosive plays dried up, so did the Bulldogs’ offense. Fresno State had just one more in the game, a 21-yard pass play from Virgil to Aaron Peck on the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that got them a lead back at 41-38 with 5:02 remaining in regulation.
So clearly there is work to be done, and it didn’t escape notice.
“It’s consistency,” DeRuyter said. “We’re doing some things right, but we’re just not there yet and we have to be because the league starts this week.”
After they got that 31-point lead with 10:16 remaining in the first half, the Bulldogs went three-and-out on their next three possessions, nine plays netting a total of four yards.
Their final nine drives in regulation included six punts, an interception in the red zone, a 25-yard field goal after they were set up with a first down at the Tulsa 12 and were at the 5-yard line on second-and-3 and the 59-yard touchdown drive that put them back into the lead.
The feeling was much different than it was a week earlier, after a 52-17 loss at Toledo.
“I can’t even describe last week’s feeling,” Virgil said. “This week, it’s a pissed-off feeling because we lost, but we know how capable we are to be really good. I think we showed that in front of the Red Wave and we should have come out with a win. We know how good we can be, but we just have to work harder.”
There’s still a lot of cleanup, though.
When you’re going with an all-out blitz trying to get a stop right there, you miss two tackles and there’s nobody on the back end because they’re playing zero coverage, it’s going to have a chance to go to the house, and it did.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
“The run game, we have to get more production out of, and part of that is Chason pulling it (in the zone read) but the other part is we have to block better and we have to run the ball better,” DeRuyter said.
“I reminded our guys after the game that the reason we put ourselves in position to make plays like we did is because we had a really good week of practice. We did a good job competing against each other. That has to be the M.O. of this team. We’re going to keep working. We’re going to compete against each other so on Saturday we can play better. We made a good stride, but we need to make more.”
Caught ya … finally – Derek Carr threw 50 touchdown passes in 2013 when Fresno State went 11-2 and beat Utah State in the Mountain West Conference championship game to snare a second consecutive title.
The touchdown pass by Virgil against Tulsa gave Bulldogs quarterbacks a total of 51 in the 30 games since Carr was selected by the Raiders in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Six quarterbacks have combined for the post-Carr total. Brian Burrell had 22 touchdown passes in 2014, Zack Greenlee had 14 in 2014 and ’15, Virgil now has nine, Brandon Connette had two in 2014 and Kilton Anderson and Ford Childress each had two in ’15.
What happened there? – Tulsa scored the winning touchdown in the second overtime on a zone read run by quarterback Dane Evans, who pulled the ball from the Golden Hurricane back and went 18 yards into the end zone.
With Tulsa in a third-and-3, the Bulldogs went hard after Evans.
Senior cornerback Jamal Ellis made a career-high 10 tackles in the loss to Tulsa and had his second interception of the season. Ellis came into 2016 with one career pick.
“We ran a blitz that we put in last week, but we didn’t fit it very well,” DeRuyter said. “When you’re going with an all-out blitz trying to get a stop right there, you miss two tackles and there’s nobody on the back end because they’re playing zero coverage, it’s going to have a chance to go to the house, and it did.”
It was a prescient pull by Evans, who hadn’t kept the ball on a zone read all game … and for a good long while. He has not run the ball much at all this season and the touchdown was only his second in 16 games. In six of those games, Evans had negative rushing yards and in three others he had 10 rushing yards or fewer.
“Up until this game, I don’t know that this year he had pulled it,” DeRuyter said. “It was a good time to run a play like that. You have to credit them for the play call and the execution.”
Hope – The Bulldogs open conference play on Saturday at UNLV, which on Saturday lost at home as a 14.5-point favorite to Idaho, a team that is transitioning down to the championship subdivision, is now 2-2 this season, was 4-8 a year ago and 1-10, 1-11, 1-11 and 2-10 going back to 2011.
Vandals quarterback Matt Linehan completed only 17 passes, but they accounted for 249 yards and he had explosive pass plays of 33, 41 and 37 yards.
“We were atrocious covering the deep ball,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “They changed their game plan and they took quite a few shots because of our inability to play the deep ball.”
Fresno State has seven explosive pass plays over the past two games including touchdown passes of 85 and 65 yards from Virgil to Jordan, who is 10th in the conference at 18.2 yards per catch.
The Bulldogs’ redshirt sophomore has seven career touchdown receptions including plays well down the field of 85 yards at Toledo and 65 yards against Tulsa this season and 82 yards against Utah, 64 yards at Hawaii and 25 yards against Abilene Christian last season.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT UNLV
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-3, Rebels 1-3
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Fresno State leads 13-5, and won 31-28 last season at Bulldog Stadium