Fresno State Football

Fresno State football: Run defense key vs. Nebraska attack that's among nation's best

Fresno State's secondary might get a reprieve from the long ball with run-oriented Nebraska coming to town Saturday.

But the Cornhuskers' ground game still will present plenty of challenges for an embattled defense in the home opener.

Powered by Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska (2-0) ranks fifth in the nation with an average of 346.5 rushing yards per game. And Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini has stressed this week that he wants to give the 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior — who leads all active Football Bowl Subdivision players with 18 100-yard rushing games — even more touches.

Abdullah saved Nebraska from what would have been the worst defeat in school history last week, scoring the game-winner in a 31-24 victory against McNeese State of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Catching a screen pass, Abdullah broke loose from six would-be tacklers for a 58-yard touchdown with 20 seconds remaining.

Abdullah is averaging 143 rushing yards per game, 11th best in the nation. He has 38 carries and four receptions after two games.

"He's our best football player," Pelini said at his weekly news conference. "We have to make sure we get the ball in his hands."

In addition to Abdullah, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a running threat out of zone-read plays. He's averaging 10.7 yards on 18 runs.

The Bulldogs (0-2) faced two pass-favoring spread offenses to begin the season, losing 52-13 at USC and 59-27 at Utah.

Fresno State has not faced such a proficient running attack since playing at Oregon in 2012. The Ducks rushed for 366 yards in a 42-25 win in Eugene.

"This is a different animal," Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. "I think they have probably the most physical offensive line that we will have faced. They are much more of a run-first, play-action passing team.

"The key to slowing (Abdullah) down is having multiple guys (go) to him. If it's one guy in space against him, he's constantly making guys miss. He runs with great vision. He's strong, makes great cuts. And what makes him especially difficult is they're an option football team and if you just key on (Abdullah), Tommy Armstrong can have a great game."

Fresno State's deficiency against the long ball — the Bulldogs have given up 12 plays of at least 20 yards this season — has overshadowed some surprising struggles against the run.

Eight starters returned on defense, but Fresno State is allowing 267.5 rushing yards per game — sixth-worst in the country.

Attempts to provide help for their shoddy pass defense have left the Bulldogs vulnerable against the run.

The line has struggled to get much of a push, and the middle linebackers and safeties have been slow to plug the running lanes.

Fresno State stepped up its tackling and other contact drills at practice this week.

"We've got to be more fundamentally sound," said junior Todd Hunt, who leads all Bulldogs defensive linemen with eight tackles. "We've got good athletes. We just haven't put it together these past two weeks.

"We all need to do a better job doing our assignment and playing better in a lot of aspects of the game. They've got an athletic quarterback and a really good running back. Coaches have a good game plan to containing him. We just have to play it right, do our assignment."

DeRuyter wasn't at Fresno State the last time the Bulldogs played the Cornhuskers. Fresno State lost 42-29 in 2011 in Lincoln.

Abdullah was just a backup in the backfield as a freshman, but he set a school record with 211 kick return yards against the Bulldogs, including a 100-yard fourth-quarter score.

DeRuyter, however, did have success in a past outing against Pelini and the Cornhuskers.

As Texas A&M's defensive coordinator, DeRuyter helped hold Nebraska to 306 total yards and the No. 18 Aggies beat No. 9 Nebraska 9-6 in 2010 in College Station.

DeRuyter said his Bulldogs staff hasn't gone back that far to game plan for Nebraska, considering the time that has passed and the talent level Texas A&M had at the time.

But they have enough scouting material to freshen their memories about how certain plays were defended in past years.

"Yeah, it helps to know how you're going to attack them," DeRuyter said. "But ultimately it comes down to your players executing your scheme.

"Hopefully our guys will have prepared well enough that they'll compete like we should. It's going to be a big-time challenge."

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