For a Fresno State defense that returned all seven starters in the back end and hit 2018 with high expectations, the numbers after two are solid. The Bulldogs are second in the Mountain West Conference in pass defense, third in total defense, third in scoring defense.
But it is squarely in the spotlight this week, with a game on Saturday at UCLA.
The successes in a rout of Idaho and loss at Minnesota have come with little pass rush and few tackles for loss. If the Bulldogs can’t improve their production in those two areas against the Bruins, then they could be looking at a season-long issue.
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UCLA, up front, is just not good.
The Bruins, who have opened the season with a loss at home to Cincinnati and a loss at No. 5 Oklahoma, have in those two games allowed 11 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. UCLA is last in the Pac-12 and 128th of 130 in the nation in sacks allowed, tied for 11th and tied for 122nd in TFLs allowed.
Fresno State must take advantage of that; that pass defense ranking is a bit of a mirage, given the five interceptions and 42.4 completion percentage by Idaho.
The Bulldogs in the loss at Minnesota allowed the Golden Gophers’ wideouts far too much time to work open for freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad and with time he did not throw the football to them like the Vandals’ Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson.
Annexstad hit 16 of 26 passes, 61.5 percent, and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt.
Fresno State could be in similar situations at the Rose Bowl. UCLA started the season with Wilton Speight at quarterback, but he suffered a back injury taking a hit in the loss to Cincinnati. True freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, more athletic and more of a threat to make plays with his feet than Annexstad, started at Oklahoma and completed 16 of 26 passes for 254 yards with one touchdown.
The Bruins hit five explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, which becomes the danger for the Bulldogs if they allow Thompson-Robinson to sit comfortably and throw.
Under pressure Thompson-Robinson will rush and make some mistakes.
The Bulldogs need to apply pressure to a skittish offensive line that has had difficulty keeping up with movement and stunts and in turn to Thompson-Robinson.
Through two games, Fresno State has just two sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss.
Last season, the Bulldogs had two or more sacks in a game 10 times and 8.0 or more tackles for loss in a game six times.
Get ready for UCLA
Fresno State at UCLA, 7:30 p.m. Saturday. TV: FS1 (find a channel guide here)
Each Fresno State football game week Robert Kuwada will report on keys to the game:
▪ 3 things to watch
▪ That’s trouble (Something the opponent does that could play well against Fresno State)
▪ Need to know