Fresno State opens Mountain West Conference play Saturday against Nevada, a winless team that would appear to be an easy mark but is capable of posing problems for the Bulldogs.
The Wolf Pack has lost at Northwestern (31-20), to Toledo (37-24), to Idaho State (30-28) and at No. 16 Washington State (45-7), and Idaho State is a championship subdivision program.
But Nevada, under first-year coach Jay Norvell, plays a 3-3-5 defense, which has confounded the Bulldogs for years. Though the Nevada defense is in the early stages of development, the Wolf Pack has caused some havoc at the line of scrimmage. Nevada has allowed opponents to rush for only 2.9 yards per play, are tied for fourth in the nation in tackles per loss per game with 8.8 and have pressured quarterbacks, racking up seven sacks.
I always look forward to when a team brings a different kind of defense. You know offensive line play, it’s very much like Groundhog Day. You do the same stuff all the time.
Fresno State center Aaron Mitchell on Nevada and its 3-3-5 defense
The sack total puts the Wolf Pack in a tie with Colorado State for seventh in the Mountain West, but it is worth noting that after four games a year ago they had only one sack and it came in that fourth game.
Here are four things to watch:
1. Fancy passing?
Norvell brought a version of the Air Raid offense to Reno and through four games the Wolf Pack hasn’t come all that close with it.
Three quarterbacks have attempted passes for Nevada this season, completing only 49.6 percent, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt with an efficiency rating of 105.93.
That is worse than the Bulldogs were last season in all three categories. And there are no reminders needed about what that looked like.
That also may be why the Wolf Pack to this point has rushed the football almost as often as it has put it in the air – just 51.3 percent of plays in the Air Raid have been passes (137 of 267). Compare that to Washington State, which, granted, is far ahead of Nevada on offense. The Cougars before Friday had put the ball in the air on 68.6 percent of their plays.
But Saturday night, Nevada may see opportunity against a Fresno State defense that has allowed opponents to hit on 69.8 percent of passes – incredibly, in the FBS, BYU (70.0), Missouri (71.2) and UTEP (73.3) have allowed a higher completion percentage – and with just four sacks has not been able to apply much pressure on opposing passers.
2. Run it up
Fresno State didn’t run the ball well in its opener against Incarnate Word, a championship subdivision program. It then came up against Alabama and Washington, two of the top 20 teams in the nation against the run, and though the Bulldogs did churn out a few plays against the Huskies, there is some question what their run game can produce in conference play.
Nevada’s secondary does some really good things. They cover well. They run to the ball well. They do some good things, so it’s going to come down to execution for us.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
Nevada has not had much success against the pass, but has allowed only 2.9 yards per play on the ground.
It also has allowed only one run of 20 or more yards this season, tied with 12 other teams including Alabama and Washington for the fewest in the nation.
That 2.9 yards per play has come defending 44.8 rushing plays per game, too. That’s not a small sample.
3. Mike Bell
Bell did not play in the first two games of the season – he was suspended for a violation of team rules. But in his debut at No. 6 Washington the third-year sophomore safety was in on a team-high nine tackles including six solo stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. He was particularly effective against the run, in which five of his tackles cut down Huskies’ running backs after a gain of 1 yard or less.
Bell is not listed on the Bulldogs’ two-deep this week, but the 6-foot-4, 205-pound safety has always been an intriguing piece in the secondary. If he gets more opportunities and can build on that game at Washington, he can become an important piece.
4. Third downer
Fresno State doesn’t look bad on third down, at least on the stat sheet. The Bulldogs are fifth in the Mountain West, moving the sticks 40 percent of the time (16 of 40).
That is a product of that opening game against Incarnate Word, when they converted at 62.5 percent (10 of 16).
The past two games they have been 27.3 percent at Alabama and 23.1 percent at Washington. Yes, that is Alabama and that is Washington, ranked No. 1 and No. 6 at kickoff.
But here’s the thing: The Bulldogs have faced some manageable third-down situations and come up short. Rushing the football on third-and-short (1 to 3 yards) they have gained a total of 7 yards on six plays, making three first downs. The long play there is 3 yards. Throwing the ball on third-and-short, they have completed only 3 of 6 passes and only two of those plays have resulted in a first down.
To keep the offense on the field, the execution needs to be much cleaner.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
NEVADA AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 1-2, Wolf Pack 0-4
- TV/radio: ROOT/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Nevada lost at No. 16 Washington State 45-7 on Saturday and is ranked 10th in the Mountain West in scoring offense (19.8 ppg) and scoring defense (35.8 ppg). One of its losses is to Idaho State, a championship subdivision program.