Fresno State playing without defensive tackle Nate Madsen in the Mountain West Conference championship game is as much about presence as it is play on the field, and that has been vital in one of the biggest turnaround seasons in college football.
The Bulldogs’ fifth-year senior was injured late in the third quarter of a 28-17 victory over Boise State in the final game of the regular season when aiding and abetting a takedown of quarterback Montell Cozart for a 3-yard loss.
That was a big play – a second-and-2 at the Fresno State 6-yard line turning into a third-and-5 at the 9, and the Broncos then settling for a field goal.
More than his play, though, losing Madsen is a blow to the Fresno State defense, defensive tackle Malik Forrester said.
“It still hurts,” he said, three days later after the Bulldogs’ first on-field practice in preparation for a rematch with the Broncos in the championship game. “It hurt all of us in the D-line room because we get our day started with Nate every day.
“We had to play through it, but he was always on our mind that game the whole time.”
As the final seconds came off the clock Saturday, Madsen got some help getting from a trainer’s table behind the Bulldogs’ bench to a cart to take him off the field. But before he made his exit from the field, Forrester and the Bulldogs collected the Milk Can Trophy, the prize to the winner of the game, and brought it to him.
Madsen, sitting in the cart and surrounded by teammates, held the trophy above his head and gave it a couple of good shakes.
“To see him go down, it was a big wound to the D-line,” said redshirt freshman tackle Kevin Atkins, who had four tackles Saturday. “He’s a big part of it for us. He has been here the longest of anybody in that room and to see him go down, that really hurt. I have to step up and play for him. Now we’re playing for Nate.”
The Bulldogs have depth at interior defensive line positions to physically absorb the loss of Madsen – Atkins has started the past two games next to Forrester, and the Bulldogs have rotated Jasad Haynes, Keiti Iakopo and Patrick Belony through those tackle positions.
“The good thing is it’s not like nobody has been in there,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It’s not like we’re taking a guy off the shelf and putting him in there brand-new. We’ve done a pretty good job of rotating guys through there. There’s some game experience there.”
None, though, has as much experience as Madsen, who has made 36 starts in his career playing as an end and a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme and now a tackle in a 4-3.
“He has been playing so long he teaches us stuff all the time,” Haynes said. “He’ll be like, ‘Hey, man, remember this, this is what they do.’
“His experience, that’s one thing that’s different from everybody.”
Madsen started the first 10 games of the season and totaled 16 tackles, helping the Bulldogs lead the Mountain West in scoring defense and last week hold Boise State to a season-low 17 points. Madsen is tied with linebacker Jeffrey Allison for seventh on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss and with Allison, linebacker George Helmuth and defensive end Stephen Van Hook for fourth with 2.0 sacks.
“He did a good job for us, now it’s someone else’s time to step up,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “We have bodies there, who have gotten reps. Now they’ll just get some more reps.
“But we’ll miss Nate, we’ll miss Nate not just for his contribution on the field but his contribution off the field. He’s a good leader for the team, always works really hard. It’s unfortunate. But it happens and we’re with him. He’ll be with us.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. BOISE STATE
- Saturday: 4:45 p.m., Albertsons Stadium (36,387) in Boise, Idaho
- Records: Bulldogs 9-3, 7-1 Mountain West; Broncos 9-3, 7-1
- TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
- Of note: The Bulldogs are playing in their third Mountain West Conference championship game, having beaten Utah State in 2013 and lost at Boise State in 2014. The Bulldogs have 18 players from that 2014 team on the roster and four who played in that game – wideout Da’Mari Scott, outside linebacker Justin Green, kicker Kody Kroening and defensive tackle Nate Madsen. Madsen has been ruled out of the game due to a leg injury suffered in the Bulldogs’ victory over Boise State in their final regular-season game. Boise State is 8-1 against Fresno State on its home field and has won eight in a row, all of them coming by 10 or more points. The Bulldogs’ victory was in their first trip to Boise in 1984.