The chaos was in the box, mixing it up with Sacramento State and its multiple defensive fronts and movement, and the Fresno State Bulldogs knew that. They also knew going in that they were going to have some open shots down the field with the Hornets playing a lot of man coverage outside.
The Bulldogs took six shots at big plays in their 34-20 victory Saturday night over the Hornets, ripping the football 30-plus yards downfield, with five of those throws by quarterback Jorge Reyna and one on a trick play by running back Josh Hokit.
The completion percentage wasn’t great – the Bulldogs hit one of those plays. But they did get two pass interference penalties and found a critical piece to their offense going forward in Keric Wheatfall, who injured an ankle early in the opener at USC and was held out against Minnesota.
“It feels amazing,” Wheatfall said after three receptions for 98 yards and that first victory. “It’s never a good feeling to lose two games in a row. But coming back from it and leaving it in the past, coming back and working each day in practice, it feels amazing.”
There could be more to come for the Bulldogs, who figure to have many chances to work on the deep ball and make plays in the passing game in their final nonconference game on Saturday at New Mexico State, an FBS independent that has weathered a rough schedule the first month of the college football season.
The Aggies lost at Washington State 58-7.
They lost at No. 2 Alabama 62-10.
They lost to San Diego State 31-10.
They lost at New Mexico 55-52.
That loss to the Lobos should pique the Bulldogs’ curiosity.
New Mexico is not adept at the forward pass and hasn’t been for some time, ranking ninth, 11th, 12th, 11th and 12th in the Mountain West in passing offense the past five seasons.
Going into Saturday’s matchup with the Aggies, New Mexico was ranked sixth but had completed only 40.6% of its pass plays and had yet to throw a touchdown pass.
But against New Mexico State, Lobos quarterback Tevaka Tuioti hit 16 of 28 passes for a career-high 355 yards and three touchdowns and had five pass plays of 40 or more yards, mostly shorter throws that wideouts turned into big plays.
That New Mexico State secondary is proving highly combustible.
Through four games, it has allowed 19 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, 10 of 30 or more yards and seven of 40 or more yards, ranking in a tie for 123rd, 122nd and 128th in the nation.
The Aggies have allowed opponents to hit 68.4% of their passes for 1,263 yards with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions, one by Tuioti and the other by San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew, who is ranked eighth in the conference in passing efficiency.
Wheatfall was the intended receiver on four of those shots down the field against Sacramento State – he caught one for a 46-yard gain to the Sacramento State 6-yard line to set up a touchdown and got a pass interference on another trying to get back to a ball that Reyna let go while dodging the pass rush.
On a third, Wheatfall was running open, but with Reyna dodging pressure the football came out a little late and Hornets safety Allen Perryman was able to race over and break up the pass.
The three passes Wheatfall pulled in went for 46, 23 and 29 yards, the 29-yarder converting a third-and-24 to the Hornets 2-yard line on the last play of the third quarter.
On the Bulldogs’ next snap, Hokit scored to put Fresno State up 20-14.
That first down conversion was Wheatfall’s favorite.
“The one that was third-and-forever,” Wheatfall said. “It was a big play that put Josh in the position to score us a touchdown.”
Wheatfall was behind the Hornets secondary enough to do some damage, which will not escape attention in a conference that has five teams ranked 91st or lower in passing defense.
“He’s an explosive guy,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He can really run. He’s got good ball skills. He’s a really hard worker, really focused on what he’s doing. It’s nice to have him back in the fold a little bit, and now that we see that he’s healthy his role will just continue.
“He made some big plays.”