Fresno State Football

Fresno State football: Struggling defense looks for answers as Nebraska looms

The pass defense has not been good, which is easily quantifiable. Fresno State is ranked 118th of 127 in the bowl subdivision in passing defense, allowing 346.0 yards per game.

It is last in passing touchdowns with 10 and it is one of 28 teams tied for 100th and last with no interceptions. It is tied for 126th and last in explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, allowing 13. Every time a quarterback lets one fly, the average gain has been 10.2 yards; every time a receiver makes a catch, it has been 16.1.

Yards after contact, which has played a big part in all of that, was more difficult for the Bulldogs' defensive staff to tabulate following a 59-27 loss at Utah.

"Part of the problem with that is, it became yards after catch because we had some catches where there should have been a contact, but there wasn't even a contact," coach Tim DeRuyter said.

So, two games into 2014 and coming off a season in which passing defense was a glaring weakness, Fresno State again is throwing open its competition at the two cornerback spots and on the practice field this week will push hard in open-field tackling drills.

"Open-space tackling we were horrible and part of that was technique and part of that is not getting enough guys to the ball," DeRuyter said. "Clearly, we have to be able to get guys down in space. We knew they had some good athletes, but we made them look a lot better than they are. Not to take anything away from Utah, but we should have competed much better in open space against those guys.

"Were going to crank that up this week and see who will step to the challenge. We're going to do some open-field tackling drills. We have to find out personnel-wise who is going to accept that challenge of, in a one-on-one situation, being able to get a receiver on the ground or in a one-on-one situation being able to cover because clearly those two areas hurt us."

Fresno State was hopeful that additional depth and an increase in competition would help cut down on big plays allowed in the passing game from a year ago -- the Bulldogs had Curtis Riley and Jamal Ellis returning, brought in junior college transfers Stratton Brown and Corey Ferguson, had Arizona-transfer Bryan Harper eligible and added freshmen Malcolm Washington and Anthoula "Tank" Kelly.

That hasn't been the case. At Utah, the Utes racked up six touchdown passes including plays of 38, 24, 36 and 45 yards and often, a tackle was missed in the secondary.

Riley and Harper, who started at USC and at Utah, will have to fend off challenges to be in the lineup in the Bulldogs' home opener against Nebraska. Ferguson was dismissed from the program on Aug. 28 for a violation of athletic department policy, but the other four will have opportunities to earn playing time at cornerback, as will strong safety Charles Washington.

"We're looking at all possibilities right now," DeRuyter said. "We're trying to get our best 11 on the field regardless and were going to look at everybody."

QB competition still in progress

DeRuyter said the Bulldogs will continue to evaluate their quarterbacks this week through practice, but said Brandon Connette, who has come off the bench in the first two games, clearly made an impression.

"We're going to evaluate during the week, but obviously we were pleased when Brandon came in the game he gave our team a spark," he said. "We didn't start the game how we wanted to start off, we dug too big of a hole going five straight series of three-and-out, you just can't do that.

"It's not all on the quarterback. We didn't run block very well, we didn't protect very well and we had some dropped passes. But the bottom line is we have to have a guy that is going to lead our entire offense and be able to be effective. That second and third quarter, I thought Brandon did some things to lead us in a positive way."

Connette hit 16 of 24 passes at Utah for 177 yards and one touchdown, while Brian Burrell was 8 of 16 for 106 yards and two touchdowns (the second coming on the last play of a game long decided).

Burrell was in at the start when the Bulldogs ran three plays and punted the first five times they had possession, their longest drive lasting only 90 seconds of game time.

Also ...

- The Bulldogs are waiting on a medical report on linebacker Jaamal Rose, who injured a knee in the loss at Utah. A preliminary report is an ACL injury.

- There is good and bad in scouting Nebraska and its passing game. The Cornhuskers have completed only 50% (33 of 66) of their passes, tied for 111th in the FBS. But they are averaging 8.0 yards per attempt, 16.0 yards per completion and 264.0 yards per game. They have had seven explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards in victories over weak competition in Florida Atlantic and McNeese State.

- With 286 rushing yards in two games, running back Ameer Abdullah already is more than a quarter of the way to becoming the first with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Nebraska. Abdullah is one of nine Nebraska backs with two 1,000-yard seasons.

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