So, Ronnie Rivers is back and healthy. In the Fresno State Bulldogs’ 49-27 victory over Toledo, the sophomore running back made some nice plays, hit a punt return for 18 yards and a run from scrimmage for 19 yards; three touches totaling 43 yards in his return from a foot injury suffered back in the spring.
And now … what? The Bulldogs have been working a three-man rotation at running back with Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit and Dejonte O’Neal and now have Rivers joining the group. It might take another game or two before he is ready to pump up the snap counts on game day, but when on the football field Rivers is a presence they have missed.
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How the Bulldogs manage their running back reps is in the spotlight this week, and not just because of Rivers’ return. Fresno State opens Mountain West Conference play on Saturday at Nevada, which has made some plays through its run defense.
This matchup could require some adjustment.
The Wolf Pack (3-2, 1-0 in the MW) is ranked only seventh in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 154.0 yards per game.
But dig into that number a little and there are some hints of trouble for the Bulldogs. Nevada has defended 43.0 rushing plays per game, tied for 10th-most in the league, which makes 154.0 yards per game a reasonable number.
It has allowed 3.5 yards per rushing play.
It has allowed just 3.4 on first-down rushing plays.
The Nevada defense also is leading the conference and fourth in the nation in tackles for loss, racking up an average of 9.6 per game.
Fresno State is one of the best third-down teams in the nation (fifth, converting 56.4 percent), and it is there because it has for the most part avoided the third-and-long scenarios that often wreck that conversion percentage.
It will need to churn out some yards on first downs against what might be a tough run defense.
But there is a “Who?” along with a “How?”
Tedford at Cal for years worked one and no more than two backs – Joe Igber in 2002 had 241 carries, Adimchinobe Echemandu in 2003 had 238 carries, J.J. Arrington in 2004 had 289 carries, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett in 2005 and ‘06 split reps, Forsett in 2007 had 305 carries, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen shared the load in 2008 and ‘09, Vereen in 2010 had 231 carries and Isi Sofele in 2011 had 252.
Four backs is a tough way to go, but rotation probably isn’t the right descriptor anyway.
Fresno State running backs coach Jamie Christian and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer have deployed the Bulldogs’ backs to the strength of their opponent.
At San Diego State last season, a game Rivers missed due to injury, Mims (21) and Hokit (14) got the majority of the carries against a solid Aztecs’ run defense.
At Wyoming, against another strong run defense and in inclement weather (a frigid 27 degrees at kickoff), they leaned on Hokit to carry the ball 21 times.
“Obviously, all running backs are about stats,” Christian said. “But we don’t talk about it in our room. It’s, ‘Hey, you guys keep doing what you’re doing.’ Whoever is in there is going to represent that group and it’s going to be at a high level whether it’s pass protection, catching the ball out of the backfield.
“We feel good about it and as we get going it’s all going to work itself out and the plays are going to be made. That’s how we are. Any time you have a talented group, there’s going to be competition. We always stay together. When one of them is out there, everyone else is cheering for them. We have a tight-knit group, and I feel good about what we have going on there.”