Fresno State Football

Lack of success stopping third downs catching up to Bulldogs. Here’s what they’re working to fix

Fresno State struggling to get stops on third down

The Fresno State Bulldogs college football team had one of the best defenses in the nation last season, but through two games it has struggled to get off the field on third downs. Defensive coordinator Bert Watts discusses the issue.
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The Fresno State Bulldogs college football team had one of the best defenses in the nation last season, but through two games it has struggled to get off the field on third downs. Defensive coordinator Bert Watts discusses the issue.

Fresno State is 0-2, a record that would suggest the Bulldogs have a few things to work out.

Among the most glaring: third-down defense, where some minor breakdowns and assignment errors have added up to some rough results.

“I think it’s part of the growth process when you have a new group, as we do,” defensive coordinator Bert Watts said. “We’ve got several new guys out there and at times we have more than that, depending on who is rotating in and that kind of stuff.

“Any time you have new guys out there, there is going to be a process of jelling and identifying the communicators and what roles to put guys in to make sure that everything is getting worked out and the assignments are getting nailed down. I think that’s what we’re going through, we just have to continue growing.”

In losses at USC and to Minnesota, the Bulldogs have had a lot of trouble getting off the field. Fresno State is last in the Mountain West and tied for 123rd in the nation in allowing opponents to convert 15 of 28 third-down plays into first downs, 53.6%.

The Bulldogs already have allowed five touchdown drives that went 10 plays or longer.

A year ago, Fresno State was fourth in the conference and 23rd in the nation in third-down defense and it allowed only seven touchdown drives that lasted at least 10 plays. The Bulldogs didn’t give up a fifth extended touchdown drive until they played at Boise State, their 10th game of the season.

Fresno State linebacker Arron Mosby, a Sanger High grad, was credited with 12 tackles last season, but found ways to make big plays. He had 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown in a victory over San Jose State. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

The easy explanation is the Bulldogs are in too many third-and-short situations – and they are: on 11 of their 28 third downs the opponent needed to gain only 1 to 3 yards to move the chains.

Boise State comparison

Boise State by comparison has defended 21 third-down plays and, incredibly, none of them has been a third-and-short. It’s not a flattering look for the Bulldogs.

Fresno State

Third-and-1 to 3 – 11 plays defended

Third-and-4 to 6 – 5 plays

Third-and-7 to 9 – 6 plays

Third-and-10-plus – 6 plays

Boise State

Third-and-1 to 3 – 0 plays defended

Third-and-4 to 6 – 4 plays

Third-and-7 to 9 – 6 plays

Third-and-10-plus – 11 plays

On 17 of the 21 third-down plays Boise State has defended, its opponent has been in a third-and-long. No surprise, then, that the Broncos are tied for third in the nation in third-down defense.

Third down a nightmare

But whether third-and-short, third-and-medium or third-and-long, the Bulldogs have struggled.

On 10 rushing plays when in a third-and-short, they have allowed an average of 6.0 yards, including a 27-yard burst by USC back Stephen Carr. But take that out of the equation, and Fresno State still is averaging 3.7 yards per play, which would rank 11th in the 12-team conference.

The Bulldogs have allowed a first down on eight of those plays, with a ninth resulting in a touchdown on a third-and-goal from the 1.

Fresno State did have another stop on a third-and-1 at USC but was penalized for a personal foul on the play, giving the Trojans a fresh set of downs.

On the one pass the Bulldogs have defended on a third-and-short, they allowed an 8-yard pass that was both a first down and a touchdown.

The third-and-long? Just as troublesome.

Fresno State’s Mykal Walker chases Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan during the Sept. 7 game at Bulldog Stadium. Minnesota won 38-35 in double overtime. Eric Paul Zamora

In the double overtime loss to Minnesota, the Golden Gophers converted a third-and-18 pass play for a first down, leading to a tying touchdown with 46 seconds remaining in regulation.

Fresno State has struggled even on those plays, allowing opponents to hit 5 of 7 passes (71.4%) with four of the completions resulting in first downs.

In the Mountain West, that is the highest opponent completion percentage on third-and-7 or longer. No team in the conference has allowed more first downs in that situation.

One more: The Bulldogs are allowing a passing efficiency rating on all third downs of 187.32, which is last in the Mountain West by a large margin and 127th of 130 in the nation.

Last season Fresno State was 97.32, second and 17th.

Fresno State defensive coordinator Bert Watts, center, with players on the first day of fall camp. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

The quality of the Bulldogs’ opponents could be a mitigating factor, having played two Power Five opponents when few Group of Five teams have.

Power Five? Solved by others

But Fresno State was 2-1 in those games last season and the Mountain West has proven already this season the gap between the Power Five and Group of Five has been closing; Hawaii has wins over Arizona and Oregon State, San Diego State beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Boise State won at Florida State, Nevada knocked off Purdue and Wyoming beat Missouri.

“The big thing is we have to make plays,” safety Juju Hughes said. “You see in those critical moments those big third downs, sometimes it’s just little miscues that we had, minor errors, but they give the offense a chance to make plays, which they did. I have to give credit to our opponents, as well – they went and made those plays. But it’s really on us.”

Fresno State linebacker Mykal Walker, center, almost intercepts a pass as Southern California tight end Erik Krommenhoek, left, and offensive tackle Drew Richmond watch during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Los Angeles. Walker dropped the ball after colliding with another player. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) Mark J. Terrill AP

The Bulldogs tinkered with their lineup against Minnesota, moving Mykal Walker from linebacker to defensive end at the start (he played end all of last season) and playing Justin Rice at middle linebacker.

Fresno State had to play much of the game without linebacker Arron Mosby, who was ejected in the second quarter due to a targeting penalty; Mosby, the former Sanger High star, was in on five tackles including three solo and one tackle for loss.

The Bulldogs also lost starting cornerback Chris Gaston with an injury two plays later.

They need to find some answers, and don’t figure to know whether anything has really clicked before opening conference play at Air Force on Oct. 12.

Fresno State is on a bye week, comes back to play FCS Sacramento State (1-1 with a game Saturday night against Northern Colorado) on Sept. 21 at Bulldog Stadium and then plays at New Mexico State (0-2 with a game against San Diego State on Saturday night) on Sept. 28 before another bye week.

“We know as a defense what we need to do to get better and we’re taking those steps to get better,” Hughes said. “We have to clean some stuff up and get it right, and we will.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada