Three games into the football season the Fresno State Bulldogs defensive line is on a hot pace, the production up from a year ago when the group included a first-team all-conference selection in Mykal Walker, who now is playing middle linebacker.
Led by defensive tackles Kevin Atkins and Keiti Iakopo and defensive end Isaiah Johnson, the Bulldogs line has racked up 5.0 sacks, up from 2.5 at the same point last season; they have 10.0 tackles for loss, up from 7.0 a year ago.
Atkins and Johnson are tied for the team lead with 2.0 sacks and 3.0 TFLs.
In the Bulldogs’ 34-20 victory over Sacramento State, one play stood out.
It was by Alex Dumais, a redshirt freshman from Montreal. On a first-and-10 from the Hornets 31, 6:19 to go in the third quarter and Fresno State clinging to a 14-12 lead, defensive end Alex Cruz dropped into coverage at the snap. That left Dumais to the outside and in a one-on-one matchup with Hornets tackle Brandon Weldon.
Dumais engaged with his right shoulder, working around and toward Hornets quarterback Kevin Thomson. As he closed, he swiped at the ball with his left hand, knocking it free, forcing a fumble that the Bulldogs recovered.
It was his first career tackle, first sack, first tackle for loss, first forced fumble.
“It felt really good to make my first play, and it was in Bulldog Stadium,” Dumais said. “It was really something that I will never forget. It was an amazing feeling.”
It also was reason for a nice celebration.
“Oh, man, he was fired up,” defensive coordinator Bert Watts said. “He was saying all kinds of stuff in French. Nobody knew what he was saying, but we were excited for him.”
In making that play Dumais had replicated almost perfectly a drill the Bulldogs defensive linemen do every week on the practice field, capturing with one swipe why the group is having its success and has the Bulldogs defense on pace to surpass in 12 games the number of sacks and tackles for loss they had all of last season.
That included two additional games, the Bulldogs beating Boise State in the Mountain West Conference championship game and Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
That defense also was one of the best in the nation, ranking third in the nation in scoring defense (14.1 points per game) and 17th in total defense (321.6 yards per game).
“As a coach, we work so hard doing those drills and to see a young player, a young freshman come in there and implement the step and working the hoop and bringing his hand around … it was a key play,” defensive line coach Will Plemons said.
“I was so proud of him, making such a big play at a time we needed it, and our group is such a fun group, so when our young players see that, they get behind them 100%.”
Running through it, Dumais said, was just like practice. “We’ve been repping it since spring, so it was a reaction to me, honestly. Your body gets used to it so much that when you get near a quarterback, that’s the first thing you’re going to do.”
A game on Saturday at New Mexico State offers more opportunity. The Aggies throw the ball an average of 41.5 times a game, 11th most in the nation. They also have allowed 14.0 sacks, 3.5 per game, which is tied for 119th in the FBS.
And there still is a lot of upside to a group with a strong veteran presence and getting deeper as the Bulldogs get into the season.
A lot was expected of the interior linemen with seniors Iakopo, Ricky McCoy and Jasad Haynes, who sat out the victory over Sacramento State due to an injury. Atkins is a junior. But the production runs deep, and the group still is in development. Johnson is a true sophomore, Dumais a redshirt freshman. Cruz, who made his first career start against the Hornets, is a redshirt sophomore.
“We invested a lot of scholarships at that position,” Watts said. “We really recruited that position hard over the past three years. We looked at it as a staff, ‘Hey, we have to get that position better,’ when we first got here and I think that’s showing up.
“Now, some of them are getting into the second and third years with us and in the same defense. All that stuff adds up to where they know what they’re doing and can play faster.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada