Fresno State, in that 3-4 defense wrought by coach Tim DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth, has had two matchups against Nevada and quarterback Cody Fajardo and fared well both times. Much better than most.
The big number: the Bulldogs are 2-0. But they also have allowed Fajardo, who has completed 66.1% of his career passes, to hit on only 55.6% and picked him off three times. The yards per play is lower. The passing efficiency rating is lower. The touchdown-to-interception ratio is much lower. And the running the football? The Bulldogs have limited his effectiveness there as well.
But Toth said the first of those games didn’t have anything to with the second and neither of them matter this time around, with the championship of the Western Division of the Mountain West Conference likely riding on the outcome on Saturday in Reno.
Fajardo, now a senior, is different.
The Wolf Pack offense also is different.
“The last two years have no impact on how that kid is going to play against us,” Toth said. “He’s more of a gamer now than he’s ever been. He carries that team. He recognizes defense better. He got after those guys last week (at Air Force) and they should have won that game. He had them in the plays that they wanted to be in and if not for the weather they probably win that game. I think he’s probably the best quarterback in our league. I really respect that kid.
“I think that their tailback is special, too, which takes some pressure off of him. No. 6 (Don Jackson) is a really good player and he can hit a home run. They give the zone and he’s going to go, and I don’t know that they necessarily had that. The first year they had a tailback that was really good, but we banged him up and he didn’t play in the game. Last year, they had a tailback and he ran one on us but after that one run he had they really didn’t have the ability to break it. The kid they have this year can go from anywhere and that’s scary. You can’t overload on the quarterback, you’re trying to make sure you have accounted for everything. That has made him better and it has also made their play-action throw game better. Their ability to run the ball and not have it be quarterback-run is much improved.”
That does not mean the outcome will be different, but the Bulldogs will have to maintain discipline against Fajardo, who has accounted for 2,891 total yards (689 rushing, 2,202 passing) — 69.7% of the team total and the highest percentage of any player in the conference.
He has 30 runs of 10 or more yards, which is the third highest total in the Mountain West behind San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey (34) and Boise State running back Jay Ajayi (32).
And he has 29 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, fourth highest in the conference behind Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson (43), UNLV’s Blake Decker (41) and Boise State’s Grant Hedrick (39).
“The key is having guys be disciplined because a lot of times what they do is option football,” DeRuyter said. “If it’s just one-on-one, he’s going to make some guys miss at certain times and that’s where he gets his explosive plays. Then he gets real explosive plays when two guys go for the dive and they forget they’re on the quarterback. Obviously, he’s a difference-maker for them, and so for us we have to have guys be really assignment-sound.”
It wouldn’t hurt to bang Fajardo around a bit.
“No quarterback that I know likes getting hit, so the more hits we can get on him the more disruptive we can be and the better chance we have of winning this game,” free safety Derron Smith said.
“I don’t know if that’s the key point. The key point is being disciplined — eyes and gap fits and tackling. But getting hits on him would definitely help.”
That discipline has been an elusive commodity this season for a Fresno State defense allowing 491.1 yards and 35.5 points per game. But the Bulldogs at least are coming off a victory over San Jose State in one of their better games this season, and with some confidence.
“We have to play a complete game,” Toth said. “You could always say, we have to stop the run and make them throw or stop the throw and make them run. You have to be a complete defense. You have to get to the ball and when you miss tackles, you have to have a lot of guys there. You have to make sure the ball is not going over your head. You have to play a complete game.
“The kid is good enough to beat you in all the facets. Their team is good enough to beat you running or throwing, so we have to match it. We have to be able to stop them both ways. Our discipline will be huge. Their explosive plays, a lot of them come from that, especially in our defense, a 3-4 that’s moving around a lot, you’ve got to account for all the phases and all the gaps.”