For two seasons now Fresno State has thrived with a defense that has been able to disarm opposing offenses, taking away what they do best and leaving them, in some cases, without a lot to rely on and with little chance to win a football game.
The Bulldogs have done it to UNLV and Wyoming and Hawaii and New Mexico and just about everyone they have come across in the Mountain West Conference.
They did it against Boise State, too, twice last season.
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The Broncos’ run game generated 3.5 yards per play when Fresno State ended the 2017 regular season with a 28-17 win at Bulldog Stadium and only 2.9 yards per play when Boise State claimed a 17-14 victory in the conference championship game.
But in a 24-17 loss to the Broncos on Nov. 9 at Albertsons Stadium, it didn’t happen, and Boise State used its success on the ground to produce 21 second-half points.
“That,” safety Mike Bell said, “is just not what we’re about.”
Those 21 points are the most that Fresno State has allowed in the second half of a conference game in two seasons under coach Jeff Tedford, the most going back even to the final three games in the Bulldogs’ 1-11 season in 2016.
In the championship rematch on Saturday at Boise State, what do the Bulldogs have to do to take the bite out of the Broncos’ offense and lead back Alexander Mattison?
Executing a to-do list is much more difficult than putting it together.
“Saying you’re going to stop Mattison is a lot easier said than done,” Tedford said. “He’s a big physical guy and they do a nice job with it. It’s a challenge, no doubt about it.”
The Bulldogs also catch Mattison and the Broncos’ run game on a solid roll. Over the past three games, the 211-pound running back has twice set a career-high for rushing attempts and is averaging two touchdowns per game:
- Fresno State: 30 for 144 yards, 2 TDs, 4.8 yards per carry
- at New Mexico: 20 for 145, 1 TD, 7.3
- Utah State: 37 for 200, 3 TDs, 5.4
Stopping Mattison and the Boise State rushing attack comes down to not getting caught up in the Broncos’ shifts and motions and playing faster, getting to the football and then tackling much more physically, things the Bulldogs did not do particularly well in that Nov. 9 loss.
“We have to come out more physical, we have to know our assignments better, we have to stay in the film room a little bit longer, look at the formations a little more in depth and play faster than we did three weeks ago,” linebacker James Bailey said.
If the Bulldogs can do that, they have more of a chance to win on first down and get Boise State into second- and third-and-long situations, another thing that eluded them Nov. 9.
Boise State averaged 5.0 yards per rush on first down in beating the Bulldogs three weeks ago and in the second half Mattison averaged 6.0 yards on first down and one of his 11 runs came on a fist-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
The Broncos also converted on third down on 10 of 16 plays, 62.5 percent, and five of those conversions came on a third-and-1 or a third-and-2. The longest was third-and-6.
Learn from last year
Stopping that is not an unfamiliar formula.
One of the best examples: San Diego State, last season.
The Aztecs had a 2,000-yard rusher in Rashaad Penny, now with the Seattle Seahawks.
Penny had 2,248 yards, scored 23 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards every time he rushed the football last season, but against Fresno State he had just 69 yards.
He had just 15 carries, but did much more damage in other games when in that 15- to 20-carry range. Penny had 221 yards on 14 rushes in a bowl loss to Army, 216 yards on 18 carries in a win at Arizona State, 234 yards on 20 plays in a victory at San Jose State.
With a poor weather forecast – a high of 38, a low of 25 and a 20 percent chance of precipitation – slowing the run game could push the Bulldogs forward in chasing their first championship since 2013.
“He’s a pretty big back and he loves to fight for yards,” defensive tackle Patrick Belony said. “That first guy is not always going to bring him down, but we have to rally as a defense and bring him down as a gang, just be able to wrap him up, stop his legs from moving, because he likes to fight though that first contact.
“We’ve seen in the past two, three times we’ve played them. He loves to fight for extra yards.”
Time and TV
Mountain West Conference championship: Fresno State (10-2, 7-1 MW) at Boise State (10-2, 7-10, 4:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN