Fresno State Football

Fresno State football defense has a challenge: What will Bulldogs do against experienced QBs?

Tedford on media poll, the process

The Fresno State Bulldogs college football team, the defending Mountain West champions, have only 12 returning starters on offense and defense. Coach Jeff Tedford and the Bulldogs still were picked to win the West Division in 2019.
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The Fresno State Bulldogs college football team, the defending Mountain West champions, have only 12 returning starters on offense and defense. Coach Jeff Tedford and the Bulldogs still were picked to win the West Division in 2019.

Fresno State played stellar defense last season, ranking in the top 20 in the nation in scoring and total defense, allowing 20 points or less 11 times in 14 games.

Safety Juju Hughes says they can take another forward step in 2019.

“We have a lot of guys back, a lot of guys that have been playing in this system,” said Hughes, a preseason All-Mountain West selection. “They understand the standards that we have set.”

But that next step ahead will be much tougher to crush for the Bulldogs, who last season had some help through a scheduling quirk and just plain good fortune on the way to a 12-2 season, a Mountain West Conference championship and Las Vegas Bowl victory over a Power Five opponent in Arizona State.

From Sept. 1 to Nov. 9, its first nine games, Fresno State did not face a returning starter at the quarterback position and the inexperience across the line of scrimmage showed against a Bulldogs defense that thrived with its disguise and aggressive schemes.

Included in that streak, the Bulldogs faced two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a sophomore making his first career start and a junior making his first career start.

In that last instance, the Bulldogs expected to see Nevada senior Ty Gangi, who passed for more than 7,300 yards in his career. But Gangi sat out with a leg injury and Fresno State faced junior Cristian Solano, who had thrown one pass that season and seven in his career when he took that first snap.

The degree of difficulty will be much higher this season.

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Fresno State defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo, center, appears to be held while pursuing San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew in the Bulldogs’ 23-14 victory over the Aztecs at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Fresno State will likely match up against a returning starter at quarterback in 10 of the 11 games that it will play against FBS opponents starting with J.T. Daniels at USC.

“It’s a pretty strong challenge, I would think, when you get more experienced guys that are in there,” coach Jeff Tedford said.

Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, who started six games as a redshirt freshman before taking off last season and enters 2019 as the Mountain West preseason offensive player of the year, said that first season plays large.

“Being out there and being through it, seeing defenses, seeing who you’re going to be playing against, knowing what type of play is going to work, you just gain all that from that year, just being able to play,” said Love, a Bakersfield product who last season passed for 3,567 yards with 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

“It’s something that a first-year person wouldn’t have. That experience goes a long way.”

But Hughes said that also could play to the Bulldogs’ favor.

“Now, I get to see more film on that quarterback. I’m a big film guy. I watch guys in and out. I want to know everything they do, how they do it.

“Compare that to last year, we were seeing guys for the first time. We don’t really know as much about them or we had two or three games on them. It’s hard to get many tendencies within those two or three games. I have a full year of tape to work with now on all these guys. That’s better for me, personally.”

For the Bulldogs?

“It helps us, in my opinion,” Hughes said.

“That’s a good point Juju makes,” Tedford said.

Fresno St UNLV Football (13)
Fresno State defensive end Kwami Jones (33) celebrates with defensive tackle Jasad Haynes (93) after sacking UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam in the Bulldogs’ 48-3 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. John Locher ASSOCIATED PRESS

The results could be similar this season with a defense that returns six starters, will be led by linebacker Mykal Walker, Hughes, cornerback Jaron Bryant and is deep up front with the return of tackles Jasad Haynes, Keiti Iakopo, Kevin Atkins and Ricky McCoy.

It could just be much more difficult to get there, though it’s worth noting that Fresno State split games against Boise State and senior Brett Rypien, allowing the Broncos quarterback to hit only 15 of 31 passes for 125 yards and one touchdown in the conference championship game.

They also beat Arizona State and senior Manny Wilkins in the Las Vegas Bowl, and one of the key plays in that game was an interception return for a touchdown on which cornerback Tank Kelly baited the Sun Devils quarterback into a poor throw.

Fresno State defensive end Mykal Walker was selected the defensive player of the game in the Bulldogs' 19-16 overtime victory over Boise State in the Mountain West championship game, Saturday Dec. 1, 2018. Walker had 11 tackles, two TFL's, one sack.

“All the guys that are in the mix now, they were there last year,” Hughes said. “Everybody keeps making a big deal that, ‘We lost guys, we lost guys …’ The guys that are stepping in, they’ve been in the program for two or three years now.

“It’s not like they’re freshmen walking in blind to what we have going. They’re guys that have been around. They understand how things work and how we do things. They’re going to handle it well.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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