Fresno State Football

Bulldogs struggling with inside run, but that alone won’t determine Mountain West fate

Fresno State churned out 239 rushing yards in its victory at New Mexico State — both a season-high and a total that is very misleading.

The Bulldogs’ leading rusher was freshman wide out Jalen Cropper, who busted a run for 25 yards and another for 79 and a touchdown, both on fly sweeps. In the box, Fresno State struggled to gain ground, as it did at times in the first three games.

Josh Hokit had 13 plays for 44 yards, 3.4 yards per play.

Ronnie Rivers had 13 plays for 42 yards, 3.2 yards per play.

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Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper ran for a 79-yard touchdown against New Mexico State. The Bulldogs went on to win 30-17 and moved to 2-2 on the season. Saturday was Fresno State’s final nonconference game before beginning Mountain West play. Nathan J Fish AP

Included in those 26 rushing plays were 11 that went for 2 yards or less. And for another shot to the confidence, the Bulldogs had six third-and-short plays (1 to 3 yards) and had quarterback Jorge Reyna throw the ball on five of them.

Against an 0-5 opponent, it was an awkward step.

“Everything we do here is not where we want it to be,” quarterback Jorge Reyna said. “We expect better, we demand better, and we need to prepare and execute even better.”

So, with Mountain West play starting Oct. 12 at Air Force, how much trouble are the Bulldogs in with their running game?

Maybe, not much.

The Bulldogs are seventh in the conference in rushing offense – and were a year ago, too, when going 12-2 overall and winning the MW championship and the Las Vegas Bowl.

And while San Diego State won MW titles in 2015 and ‘16 with strong rushing attacks led by running back Donnel Pumphrey, since the conference was split into divisions in 2013 the Mountain West champ has ranked fourth (Boise State in 2014), seventh (Fresno State in 2018), ninth (Boise State in 2017) and 10th (Fresno State in 2013) in rushing offense.

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Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna escapes a tackle by Southern California defensive lineman Jay Tufele, below, as defensive lineman Christian Rector, second from right, gives chase and tight end Jared Rice works his way open during the first half of the Bulldogs; 31-23 loss Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Aztecs were third in the conference both years they won titles.

But the Bulldogs definitely need to boost their run game inside the tackles after struggling to move a New Mexico State defense that was ranked 129th of 130 in the nation in both scoring defense and total defense and was allowing 240.8 rushing yards per game.

“We felt like we could get the ball on the perimeter with the fly sweep, which we did,” offensive coordinator and line coach Ryan Grubb said. “We just weren’t hitting the complementary runs on the inside with it, because we had good runs off the fly on the inside and we just weren’t getting enough of it.

“It’s just inconsistency on things. You get one hole plugged in the dam and then something else shows up. Our youth is showing at times. We’ve got to keep working. There’s only one answer, and that’s stay on it.”

The Bulldogs played at New Mexico State without left guard Netane Muti, their best offensive lineman, due to injury. During the week they worked through a number of options at left guard, with four players taking reps there. But that inconsistency rushing the ball inside didn’t just pop up when they landed in Las Cruces.

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Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers, center, tries to run up the middle against Minnesota Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 in Fresno. Rivers rushed for 76 yards on 15 plays and caught five passes for 48 yards including two touchdowns. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Cropper had the big runs and wide out Derrion Grim had runs for 18, 8 and 6 yards, also on sweeps, and this season only one of the Bulldogs’ five explosive rushing plays of 20-plus yards to this point have come from a running back:

79 yards – WR Jalen Cropper at New Mexico State

27 – TE Cam Sutton at USC

25 – WR Jalen Cropper at New Mexico State

22 – RB Ronnie Rivers vs. Sacramento State

21 – QB Jorge Reyna at USC

Grubb said the Bulldogs might have had too much in play at New Mexico State, given the shuffling they did during the week with Muti down. The Bulldogs ran some option, some counter, inside zone and outside zone; they ran power, fly power and fly sweep.

“There’s the mile-wide and inch-deep theory, too,” Grubb said. “But there’s always room for improvement. There are other wrinkles that we’ll be getting in.

“Sometimes when you have lineups juggled and things like that, it limits how much you can do. There’s definitely an element of that we had to contend with. There was some stuff that I had to drop because we weren’t executing it well enough. You have those battles when you’re down a couple of guys and shuffling.”

Coming out of a second bye in the first six weeks of the season, the Bulldogs will run into Air Force on Oct. 12 at Falcon Stadium.

The Falcons are third in the Mountain West in rushing defense, allowing 93.3 yards per game. They have not played strong rushing teams in FCS Colgate, Colorado (seventh in Pac-12), No. 16 Boise State (eighth in MW) and San Jose State (12th in MW).

That didn’t matter much at New Mexico State, though.

“One of the things we talked about for the bye week here is working more technique, more individual time,” Grubb said. “Whether it’s timing with the tight ends and tackles or it’s guard-center-guard stuff, whatever it is, trying to dedicate a little more time to that.

“There’s plenty of yards to be had. We just have to keep grinding on the details.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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