Fresno State after three games has just three sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss, ranking in a tie for 10th and last, respectively, in the 12-team Mountain West Conference.
But the Bulldogs are leading the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 16.0 points per game, and they just held Power Five opponents Minnesota and UCLA to an average of 288.5 yards and 17.5 points per game. Combined, the Golden Gophers and Bruins were 6 of 25 on third-down conversions.
Defensive coordinator Bert Watts said he is unconcerned by those sacks and tackles for loss numbers – they will go up.
They figure to, and there could be a growth spurt soon.
Fresno State, which plays Toledo on Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium in its final non-conference game, started the season with three first-year starters on the defensive line in ends Mykal Walker and Emeka Ndoh and tackle Jasad Haynes. The fourth lineman, tackle Kevin Atkins, started just five games last season.
Through three games, they have combined for 37 tackles including 7.0 tackles for loss and three sacks with Walker leading the group with 17 total tackles.
So, why not worry? A comparison to last year’s unit is one reason.
Through three games last season, defensive ends Robert Stanley and Tobenna Okeke and tackles Malik Forrester and Nathan Madsen had accumulated 19 total tackles including 4.0 tackles for loss between them.
That group did play at No. 1 Alabama and at No. 16 Washington, but at the start of the season it also had played much more football than this season’s defensive line.
Forrester and Madsen had started 11 games in 2016, and Madsen had 26 starts in his career. Stanley had started nine games the previous season as an inside linebacker, and Okeke had started seven as an outside linebacker.
Red (hot) zone
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion has completed 13 of 15 pass attempts in the red zone (86.7 percent) with two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs quarterback also has rushed for four touchdowns when inside opponents’ 20-yard line, all of them coming in the victory at UCLA.
And through three games the Bulldogs have improved their red zone touchdown percentage to 73.3 from 54.7 a year ago. They have scored on 13 of their 15 red zone possessions with 11 touchdowns.
McMaryion last season completed only 17 of 36 passes in the red zone (47.2 percent) with six touchdowns.
If the Bulldogs get into the red zone against the Rockets, they have to like their chances.
Toledo has allowed opponents nine red zone trips and eight touchdowns. The 88.9 TD percentage is the worst in the Mid-American Conference and tied for 126th in the FBS.
Running back rotation
Fresno State running back Jordan Mims carried the football 21 times in the Bulldogs’ victory at UCLA, matching a career-high set last season in a win at San Diego State. But the running back rotation is intact, running backs coach Jamie Christian said.
The uptick in touches was simple math.
In running 27 more plays at UCLA than they did at Minnesota and playing with a lead through much of the second half, the Bulldogs doubled their number of rushing plays.
Mims had 10 carries at Minnesota, 21 at UCLA. Josh Hokit had five carries at Minnesota, 12 at UCLA. Only Dejonte O’Neal had his carries stay the same, five in both games.
The Bulldogs rushed for only 3.6 and 2.9 yards per play in those games, but many times were rushing into a stacked box. More is expected, and it could come on Saturday against Toledo. The Rockets have allowed 6.0 yards per rushing play in two games against FBS opponents, Miami and Nevada.
“We knew it was going to be tough running,” Christian said. “The last two games it was against teams that loaded the box and played man. We’re running against eight-man boxes. But I feel real good about our kids because they’ve been real unselfish knowing that it’s going to be tough yards.
“The one thing about it when you have three guys playing, it’s about the group. It’s about the group all getting their opportunities and doing their job. Whoever is in there is going to block, is going to do what he’s supposed to, is going to be assignment error-free. If we keep doing that, the big plays are going to come.”
Mims, Hokit and O’Neal have yet to miss an assignment in pass protection when picking up blitzing linebackers and safeties, Christian said.
“That’s unheard of,” Christian said. “Everybody is locked in 100 percent.”
- Toledo’s top three wideouts have combined for 61 touchdown receptions in their careers. Cody Thompson has 24, Diontae Johnson has 20 and Jon’Vea Johnson has 17.
- Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer matched up against Toledo three times when at Eastern Michigan. The most points the Eagles scored in any game is 20.
- The Bulldogs are leading the Mountain West and fifth in the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 57.8 (26 of 45) and first in the conference and third in the nation in third-down defense at 23.7 percent (9 of 38). Fresno State is the only team ranked in the top five in the nation in both third-down offense and third-down defense.
- Toledo has converted only 35.1 percent of its third-down plays into first downs. The trouble for opponents has been getting the Rockets into that situation – they have run only 37 third-down plays, and there are only six teams in the nation that have faced third down fewer times.
- Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford continues to close in on his 100th victory as a college head coach. Tedford entering play on Saturday is 94-62 in his 13th season.
- The Bulldogs are averaging 43.0 points per game. The Rockets are averaging 51.0 points per game. Yet the betting-line total on the game after opening at 62 points was down to as low as 59.5 before creeping back up during the week.
- Toledo has won its past four regular-season games against Mountain West opponents including a 52-17 victory over the Bulldogs at the Glass Bowl in 2016. The average margin of victory in those four games: 17.5 points.
- The Bulldogs in just three games have scored 62 points off their 12 turnovers gained (seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries), which is more than they have had in any of the past three seasons. Fresno State scored 61 points off turnovers last season, 38 in 2016 and 58 in 2015.