Fresno State has issues with its quarterback play, no secret there, but they were at times glaring in a 30-27 overtime loss late Friday night at UNLV.
Junior Brian Burrell completed 56.8% of his passes, in line with what he has done all season (56.9%). But it was an inability to extend drives and poor execution when on the Rebels' side of the field that hurt most.
The Bulldogs converted 2 of 14 third-down plays. And Burrell committed two of his three turnovers in the red zone -- a lateral that was fumbled at the 15 and an interception at the 16.
Burrell has completed only 51.8% of his third-down throws -- and 47.6% on much more manageable plays with 1 to 6 yards to go.
But with the Bulldogs starting prep Sunday for a game at Mountain West Conference nemesis Boise State, the focus will be on improving the play around Burrell more than making a change at quarterback or on getting more reps for graduate-transfer Brandon Connette or redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee.
"I don't care who is the quarterback, if we're doing the things around him that we did (Friday) night, no quarterback is going to be successful," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "Yeah, Brian has got to get better at what he has to get better at, particularly taking care of the football. But it's not just a quarterback situation it's a team situation and it's not just the offense, it's in all three phases."
One, DeRuyter said, has had impacted the other and the offensive development.
"The quarterback obviously gets the blame when things don't go well, but he's not the one dropping passes, he's not the one slipping," he said. "There are some things he has to get cleaned up, but he's not the one running the routes at the wrong depth and having to throw the ball in different spots than what we do in practice. Some of it is him, but a lot of it is not."
Those failures in execution and an inexperienced receiving corps may play a part in Burrell holding onto the football too long, waiting for a receiver to break open before delivering the ball. By the time a pass gets there, a defender has either made the window much smaller or closed it all together.
Burrell, however, also missed two opportunities to keep second-half drives alive when throwing to senior Josh Harper, who is the Bulldogs' most experienced and reliable receiver.
On the first, Harper, open in a hole between the UNLV corner and safety on the right sideline, had a drop. But delivering the ball late made an easy catch for a first down a tough, contested chance.
On the second, Harper came out of his break wide open on the sideline and had to wait for the football. Had it been there on time, the Bulldogs likely get a first to extend their drive. But with a late throw, the corner had time to recover and the safety time to close ground. Harper slipped one, but not the other and was forced out of bounds short of the first down.
But there is a lot to get done, with more than half of the Mountain West schedule still to be decided. That goes well past Burrell, 3-4 in his first season as a starter.
"He has to get better. He's not shirking any of the responsibility because there are quite a few things especially in ball security that he has to do a much better job of," DeRuyter said. "But it's not just Brian Burrell. He's not the sole reason we're not executing on offense. We have to get the guys around him much better."
On the overtime
Fresno State caught a critical break after UNLV's short-distance kicker Jonathan Leiva missed a 26-yard field goal as time expired in regulation.
But the Bulldogs returned the favor in overtime by veering from their go-to play that helped put them in position to win.
Running back Marteze Waller got hot in the fourth quarter while gaining 67 of his 137 rushing yards and gave Fresno State its lone lead when busted through for a 13-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-inches.
But the Bulldogs handed the ball off to Waller just once in overtime and ended up going four-and-out before UNLV got its OT possession and followed with a winning 33-yard field goal by longer-distance kicker Nicolai Bornand.
"You can always second-guess play calling," DeRuyter said. "But our thought was we were going to have to score seven.
"Obviously, we made calls that we thought would be successful. But they weren't. Give them credit. They made some plays."
The Bulldogs did try to get the ball to Waller twice as a receiver -- but both passes went incomplete.
On the first play in overtime, Burrell faked a swing pass to his left and fired to his right at a wide-open Waller on a screen with four blockers in front against one defender nearby. But the pass nearly hit Waller's feet.
Then after declining a 35-yard field-goal attempt - partly because UNLV still had its possession coming but also because Bulldogs walk-on kicker Kody Kroening missed his final extra-point attempt -- Fresno State went for it on fourth-and-3 with another pass to Waller.
UNLV defensive back Sidney Hodge, who initially was lined up in front of Bulldogs inside receiver LeKendrick Williams, blitzed at the last second and went unblocked toward Burrell.
The Bulldogs quarterback stepped up and avoided the sack, then floated a downfield pass to Waller off a wheel route near the end zone along the sideline and near the end zone.
But the ball sailed just off Waller's fingertips.
Burrell said he didn't even see Waller when he threw, but aimed at the spot where the play called for Waller to be.
"They brought pressure on the last fourth-down play," DeRuyter said. "Obviously, it made us hurry. We would've had a play to Marteze. But give them credit for making that play."