Fresno State Football

Bulldogs, staring at 0-3 start, put pieces together to pull away from Sacramento State

Fresno State and FCS Sacramento State were tied up in the fourth quarter, 11:58 to go, and to that point the Bulldogs were not getting much done with the football.

They had made some plays, but left more on the field. An 0-3 start to the Bulldogs’ season was hanging out there.

Fresno State averaged just 2.8 yards per rush through three quarters and had converted just 4 of 11 third-down plays. The Hornets to that point had racked up seven tackles for loss including three sacks, had been credited with four quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered two. In three quarters they had more TFLs than USC and Minnesota, Power Five programs, had in beating the Bulldogs.

The offensive line was having a lot of problems handling the Hornets’ movement up front, all of the stunts and twisting inside, all of the blitzes.

Then, they didn’t.

The Bulldogs’ 34-20 victory on Saturday turned there, with a line that stopped chasing the Hornets and a heavy dose of running back Josh Hokit.

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Fresno State’s Keiti Iakopo, center, rushes Sacramento State’s quarterbackKevin Thomson, right, Saturday, Sept 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“The best part is our offensive line responding to (the question) whether we are going to dominate up front or not and they did,” quarterback Jorge Reyna said. “I am more than happy, I am thrilled for our offensive linemen.”

The score tied, Fresno State went 74 yards in 11 plays to take a 27-20 lead with Hokit pounding out runs of 14, 10, 4, 6 and 2 yards against a defense that had come in yielding just 1.8 yards per rushing play and 59.3 per game. Reyna, with time, was able to hit Derrion Grim with a 7-yard touchdown pass to put the Bulldogs in the lead.

After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Bulldogs went 55 yards in five plays to go up two touchdowns with Hokit hitting on runs of 9, 1, 5 and 14 yards, the last of those plays resulting in his third touchdown of the game.

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Fresno State’s Justin Rice, right, stops Sacramento State’s Marshel Martin, left, Saturday, Sept 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The senior, with his first extended work this season, had scored on a 14-yard pass from Reyna in the first quarter and a 2-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.

In those two scoring drives Fresno State averaged 8.1 yards per play, churning out 129 yards.

In the third quarter, they averaged 2.7 yards on 24 plays.

Through the first three quarters, they averaged 5.7 yards on 62 plays.

“With all that movement, we were turning, looking … it’s hard,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “They have a great pressure package, are good against the run.

“There’s a reason their stats are like that. It’s hard. But we finally found a couple of things and didn’t get caught with all the inside twists and things like that and the contact starting four or five yards down the field instead of in the backfield.”

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The Fresno State defense swarms over Sacramento State’s Elijah Dobson, center, Saturday, Sept 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Reyna had gone to the Bulldogs’ offensive line early, after the first or second series of the game, and told them the team’s success would come down to them.

Win, it’s because of you. Lose, it’s because of me.

That’s what he told them.

“Now,” Reyna said, “I don’t know about you guys, but, ‘Who wants to win?’ We all came together – Matt Smith, Nick (Aibuedefe), (Netane) Muti, Syrus (Tuitele), Q (Quiero Woodley), we all said, ‘Hey, let’s do it. Let’s dominate.’”

It took a while, and without a doubt they were scuffling. Those seven tackles for loss through three quarters not only were a season-high allowed by the Bulldogs, but the second-most Fresno State had allowed in two seasons plus three games under Tedford …

8.0 at Boise State on Dec. 1, 2018

7.0 Sacramento State on Sept. 21, 2019

6.0 at Boise State on Nov. 9, 2018

6.0 at Minnesota on Sept. 8, 2018

6.0 vs. Houston on Dec. 24, 2017

6.0 Nevada on Sept. 30, 2017

6.0 at Washington on Sept. 16, 2017

Alabama, by comparison, had only 4.0 tackles for loss when beating the Bulldogs in 2017.

But late Saturday night the pieces came together for a Fresno State line that was down left tackle Dontae Bull due to a leg injury – Aibuedefe made the start, the first of his career.

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Sacramento State quarterback Kevin Thomson, center, is sacked with Fresno State’s Justin Rice, left, and Isaiah Johnson, right, Saturday, Sept 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Tedford said not much was said before the first of those fourth-quarter scoring drives. “There was no Knute Rockne, nothing like that.”

But it might have been a little different on the field, in the huddle to start that drive.

“Matt Smith, he was really amped up,” Reyna said with a smile. “He said, ‘Let’s punch it in. Let’s go.’“

Then Hokit, who had just one carry in the first two games playing behind Ronnie Rivers, ripped off a 14-yard run. He would finish with 72 yards on 12 plays, 6.0 yards per play, with all but five of those yards coming in the fourth quarter.

“We finally found what worked and got the ball rolling,” Woodley said. “We just relied on our fundamentals, went back to our coaching and executed.

“It was about us, not about what they do. We’re not playing to them, we’re playing for us. We just had to find our groove and get going.”

Reyna, who hit 26 of 39 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns without an interception against the Hornets and has been chased around quite a but through the first three games of the season, gave the offensive line all the credit.

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Fresno State’s Kevin Atkins, center. blocks Sacramento State’s Kyle Sentkowski’s field goal attempt Saturday, Sept 21, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“They stepped up tremendously and right now, I have to go find them some food,” he said. “But that’s a good problem to have.”

By the numbers

3 – Punts by Blake Cusick and punts downed inside the 10-yard line. Cusick pinned the Hornets at their 7-, 8- and 1-yard line. “There are a lot of plays in a game, but the one that sticks out to me the most right now is Blake punting it down to the 1-yard line,” Tedford said. “That might not be very sexy, but it is very effective. Being out past midfield and putting it at the 1, that is huge.”

7 – Three-and-out series for the Bulldogs defense, five of them in the second half when holding the Hornets to just 80 yards of offense on 29 plays, 2.8 yards per play.

12 – Rushing yards for Sacramento State, the fewest allowed by Fresno State since the opening game of the Tedford era, a 66-0 victory over Incarnate Word. The Bulldogs held IW to minus-30 rushing yards on 27 plays.

7.0 – Tackles for loss by Sacramento State. The Fresno State offensive line had allowed only nine in its two games against Power Five conference opponents to start the season – USC had 4.0 tackles for loss and Minnesota had 5.0.

28.6 – Third-down conversion percentage for the Hornets (4 of 14), who had come in at 51% and were facing a defense that had allowed 54%. The average distance to go for a first down on the Hornets’ 14 third-down plays was 10.1 yards.

24 – Yards to go on a third-down pass play from Jorge Reyna to Keric Wheatfall, who picked up 29 yards and a first down. All three of Wheatfall’s receptions were explosive plays: 23, 46 and 29 yards.

9 – Red zone possessions for the Bulldogs, who scored on five (all touchdowns). Fresno State went into the game tied for sixth in the Mountain West in red zone touchdown percentage with four in eight trips. Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah State also were at 50%.

30 – First downs for the Bulldogs, their most in a game since they had 30 in a 35-24 victory at New Mexico in 2014.

6 – Fresno State first downs that came by penalty. Sacramento State was penalized 12 times for 147 yards. A Bulldogs opponent has not had that many penalty yards in a game going back through the 2009 season.

20 – Points in the fourth quarter for the Bulldogs, who had scored 3, 17, 14 and 17 points in quarters one through four in their first two games combined.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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