The Fresno State Bulldogs open Mountain West play at Nevada on Saturday, and are well ahead of the Wolf Pack on the program rebuild scale.
Jeff Tedford inherited a team that was 1-11 and 10-28 over three seasons, and the Bulldogs last season improved to 10-4. Jay Norvell took over a team that was 5-7 and 19-19 over three seasons and took a step back in his first year, the Wolf Pack going 3-9.
But Nevada is 3-2 and 1-0 in conference play having won on the road at Air Force last week and the Wolf Pack can present some challenges for the Bulldogs. Here are some things to watch:
Fresno State wideout KeeSean Johnson is four receptions away from moving past Isaiah Burse and into fourth place on the program’s career receptions list.
Burse had 209 receptions from 2010 to ‘13. Johnson has 206, after catching six passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ victory over Toledo.
That is one reason to keep an eye on Johnson.
Here’s another: Nevada, ranked seventh in the Mountain West in passing defense, has had a dreadful time trying to keep an opponent’s No. 1 receiver out of the end zone.
It started with FCS Portland State and Charlie Taumoepeau, who caught three passes against the Wolf Pack for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Then, it was Vanderbilt and Kalija Lipscomb, who had 10 receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Then, Oregon State and Isaiah Hodgins, who caught 14 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Then, Toledo and Diontae Johnson with four receptions for 67 yards and a score. Even Air Force and Marcus Bennett got into the end zone. The Falcons, running an option offense, completed only eight passes in a loss last week against Nevada, but Bennett had four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
The Bulldogs’ Johnson last season had seven receptions against Nevada for 104 yards and three touchdowns, and with conference play starting he could complete his career with more receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns against the Wolf Pack than any other team in the conference.
Johnson against the Mountain West:
|San Diego State||17||138||1|
|San Jose State||10||195||1|
The senior wideout also has a streak of 40 consecutive games with at least one reception, the longest active streak in the nation.
This is a matchup between a Fresno State offensive line leading the Mountain West and tied for sixth in the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed (3.75 per game) and a Nevada defensive front leading the conference and fourth in the nation in TFLs (9.6).
The Bulldogs also will be lining up against a tricky 3-3-5 defense.
Fresno State for years struggled against all of the movement and disguise when it matched up against San Diego State and its 3-3-5 —who can forget the 2015 game when the Bulldogs mustered just 89 yards of offense in a 21-7 loss?
But offensive line coach Ryan Grubb came in with coach Jeff Tedford and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer and made some changes to the way the Bulldogs watched film, studied and prepared for an opponent, and they ended up handling it very well against the Aztecs and before that against Nevada.
“We’re focused a lot more on film as a unit now,” center Micah St. Andrew said. “We used to always watch film, but the new way we watch film, we take it like students. We write down the moves, who we’re going up against. We kind of learn the player before we go onto the field and it helps us a lot if we know the player and how they play.
“We take it in stride as we move forward with our game plans and how we approach practices and our overall technique going into the game.”
The Bulldogs were at their best at San Diego State, working against a defense that had ranked in the top two in the Mountain West against the rush in four of the five previous seasons and at kickoff were ranked fourth in the conference.
Fresno State rushed for 199 yards on 38 plays and three touchdowns in a 27-3 victory, becoming only the fifth Mountain West team to average better than 5.0 yards per rush against the Aztecs over the past four-plus seasons, 45 games in all.
Fresno State also did not allow a sack.
The Bulldogs in that stretch against the Aztecs: 3.6 yards per rush, 2.6, 4.0, 0.6 and 3.3.
There always are questions, and against the Wolf Pack on Saturday it will be on St. Andrew to make the line calls with a group that has three first-year starters in right guard Markus Boyer, right tackle Syrus Tuitele and left guard Nick Abbs. St. Andrew also is in his first season at center after starting 31 games the past three seasons at right guard.
But, midweek, St. Andrew was confident in the way it was coming together.
“It’s the same as every week,” he said. “Every week is a new game plan, every week is a new thing. I just take the lessons of the week and try to regurgitate them and try to adjust on the field throughout the week, see how we can adjust.
“It’s the usual stuff, week by week. We change it up. There’s a lot of responsibility, so I try to make the best calls I can.”
Fresno State four games into the season is reaping the benefits of having a quarterback in a second year as a starter, with Marcus McMaryion leading an offense that is averaging 45.0 points per game and has excelled on third downs and in the red zone.
His passing efficiency rating is way up, as are most other statistical measures of a quarterback.
And the Wolf Pack’s Ty Gangi:
Fresno State gave Gangi some trouble with its disguise last season in a 41-21 victory at Bulldog Stadium — he completed 31 of 48 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns but also threw three interceptions.
Two of those interceptions were made by cornerback Jaron Bryant, and on one he was in better position to catch the football than the opposing receiver.
Nevada has a big-play offense, but the Bulldogs figure to throw a lot at Gangi again. If he is the same quarterback that he was a year ago, Bryant, Tank Kelly, Mike Bell and Juju Hughes could have a chance to pick off a pass or two.