It’s a team game, and ideally all three facets – offense, defense and special teams – are on every time. And all have proven pivotal for the Fresno State football team. The Bulldogs don’t beat Rutgers, Boise State or San Diego State without huge defensive plays at the end.
But the past two seasons, Fresno State has leaned heavily in one direction, winning 11 games in 2013 and six last season when allowing 30.3 and 32.4 points per game, respectively, even though the average number of victories for teams yielding that many points was considerably lower.
In 2013, it was 3.4. Last season, it was 4.3. And no other team won as many as 10 games.
But now, the Bulldogs enter Mountain West Conference play on Saturday at San Jose State with an offense that might be well short of peak efficiency after Zack Greenlee was arrested on a charge of public drunkenness and Chason Virgil was lost for the season with a broken collarbone, leaving Fresno State with one significant question: Is the defense sufficiently recovered from its depth, personnel and injury issues to stamp out threats to its three-year run at the top of the West Division?
If Greenlee is suspended for a half or for a full game – coach Tim DeRuyter said an announcement will come just before kickoff – Fresno State will have two scholarship quarterbacks available in junior transfer Ford Childress and redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson, and neither has played much.
A couple of zeroes on the scoreboard or a few three-and-outs will come in handy, yet there is no ready answer.
“Until we get into a league game and we can go toe to toe with somebody that we have to beat to win our division, I think that will be the true test,” DeRuyter said. “But I like how we’re trending.”
26.9Average points allowed by Fresno State against Mountain West teams in 2014
There were positives last week in a 45-24 loss to No. 21 Utah. The Bulldogs forced two turnovers, including one deep in the red zone, and limited the Utes to 380 yards of offense and 24 points, the final seven coming with 14 seconds to go.
Fresno State also has fared much better against similar competition in conference play than it has taking on Power Five Conference teams over the past season-plus when getting drubbed twice by USC, and by Utah, Nebraska and Ole Miss before rebounding in its latest matchup against the Utes.
The Bulldogs last season allowed 324.7 passing yards against Power Five teams but only 215.4 against teams from the Mountain West. They gave up 55.3 points per game when playing up but only 26.9 against conference rivals. They allowed Power Five teams to convert 50 percent of their third-down plays and MW teams 39.9 percent. The difference in total defense was rather large as well – Fresno State gave up 596.3 yards per game compared with 417.4.
Outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, who had a career-high 13 tackles against Utah and is the vocal leader on the defense, said he sees progress.
“I feel like great defenses – you look at the NFL, college, whatever – they’re put together. They’re not just, ‘Oh, bam, here comes a great defense,’ ” he said. “I feel like great defenses are always defined by their twos (second team). What I learned when I was a sophomore playing against USC was they had their ones, which were good, and then they brought in their twos, and you couldn’t really tell the difference. Their second tight end was just as good as their first tight end. That second tackle was almost as good as the first tackle. When you have depth like that, it’s almost a factory-style thing, and I feel like that’s what our defense is getting to.
I feel like we’re getting close to that factory style where it’s next man in and there’s not a big drop.
Bulldogs outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine
“We have corners where we can interchange and they won’t miss a beat. We have linebackers that can do the same thing. We have D-linemen who can do it. I feel like we’re getting close to that factory style where it’s next man in and there’s not a big drop.”
Against the Spartans, Fresno State will match up against an offense that has quarterback issues of its own with starter Kenny Potter questionable with a high ankle sprain.
San Jose State, in games against FBS opponents Air Force and Oregon State, has averaged only 18.5 points per game with a passing efficiency rating of 92.24. But the Spartans also have weapons in running back Tyler Ervin and wideout Tyler Winston, who two years ago caught 10 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown when the Spartans ended the Bulldogs’ 10-game winning streak and BCS bowl dreams in a 62-52 victory as a 10 1/2-point underdog.
Defensive coordinator Nick Toth said he is ready to do some singing in the locker room whether the final score is 7-3 or 63-62.
“There is no thought about one side being deficient or one element. It’s pick your bother up, and it has been that way all the time,” he said. “But I’m always ready for us to be dominant. We’re pushing to be dominant. We have to do that, though. Dominant means you have to play. You have to do it today, and you have to do it tomorrow. You have to put it on film.
“We’re really young. We’re always going to be fighting that youth this year. But I really like our leadership. If we get consistent, we can be as good as we want to be. I’m ready for that to happen now. I have no patience. I want to go see our guys compete in this thing, and special teams, offense, we’re going to win this thing as a team.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN JOSE STATE
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Spartan Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 1-2; Spartans 1-2, 0-1 MW
- TV: CBS Sports Network
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)