During the week, Monday through Thursday on the practice field and Friday in a walk-through, Fresno State shows no hints of fragility.
The practices are solid, though sometimes sloppy, and were spirited enough this week to include a skirmish between the No. 1 offense and scout team defense when starting running back Marteze Waller took a bit too much contact in a non-contact drill when already well down the field and past the point of the exercise. Just pushing, no punches.
Yes, the Bulldogs football team is 1-5 and 0-3 in the Mountain West Conference with a five-game losing streak in which little has gone right and a lot has gone wrong. But coach Tim DeRuyter isn’t worried about the wattage that the Bulldogs will bring into a conference matchup Friday against UNLV – only the upshot.
“A year ago at this time when we were taking some shots and we weren’t playing real well, it was almost like pulling teeth at times trying to get guys going. We have not had that,” he said.
“Our guys have practiced really well. I think it’s a testament to our senior leaders. They’re demanding it and we’ve got great character kids that want and are committed to turning this thing around.”
What the Bulldogs need, DeRuyter said, is some early success, something to build on.
They have had chances, but fizzled. In a loss to Utah, Da’Mari Scott, with a crushing hit on Boobie Hobbs, forced a fumble at the Utes 17-yard line. Fresno State recovered, but had to settle for a field goal.
In a loss at San Diego State, they started first-half drives at the 33, 43, the Aztecs’ 28, the 37 and 42 and could muster just one score. In a loss to Utah State, they forced a quick punt and then rushed the football onto the Aggies’ side of the field, but failed on a fourth-and-4.
Fresno State against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents is averaging 2.0 points in the first quarter, ahead of just 11 teams including Louisiana-Monroe and Boston College, who have yet to score. It has been outscored 66-10 – 28-7 in its conference games.
“It has been rough in so many ways, but that’s something that’s motivating me as well as my teammates,” freshman inside linebacker Nela Otukolo said. “We practice every week. Everyone on this team puts in a lot of hard work, and our saying is we get paid on game day and we haven’t been getting paid. That’s our biggest motivation.”
UNLV (2-4, 1-1) doesn’t figure to be an easy mark. Under first-year coach Tony Sanchez, what shows on tape is similar to what Fresno State looked like in 2012 when DeRuyter was in his first Bulldogs season, minus Derek Carr, Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, among others.
“I didn’t think they were that far away before – athletically they’re very similar to a lot of the teams in our league. But they’re playing with a different energy,” DeRuyter said. “When you’re first establishing that culture, you can see it. I think Coach Sanchez put together a terrific staff. He has had tremendous success, so he brings an energy, a confidence and a vision for where they want to be.
“What happens is, a new staff comes in and there are new eyes on them. The older guys have a chance to kind of prove themselves all over again. Guys develop in a program and when a coaching staff has been there for a few years, at times a guy can be slotted – OK, this is all this guy can do. A new guy comes in and says, ‘No, this guy can do X, Y and Z.’ ”
To “W,” Fresno State will have to contend with the Rebels’ run game and tackle much more forcefully than it has in the past five losses. Ole Miss, Utah, San Jose State, San Diego State and Utah State all rushed for 200 or more yards against the Bulldogs. UNLV is averaging 217.8 rushing yards per game, and that includes a game at Michigan, No. 3 in the nation in rushing defense.
Junior Keith Whitely is the leading rusher with 373 yards at 4.5 yards per play in six games, but quarterback Kurt Palandech provides a run-pass option of the kind that has given the Bulldogs some problems.
“There are triple options, basically,” Sanchez said at his weekly news conference. “You’ve got zone, he can pull it and run, then you’ve got somebody that he can throw it out to on the outside, and people are concerned about his feet. We had that one play (against San Jose State), it actually got called back for a hold, but, man, when he got out around the edge it was a 50-yard gain. There were a couple of times where it looked like he was sacked and he spun out, got the first down.
“He really did some good things extending drives and so you have to account for that. It’s kind of a pain for the defense when you have to account for the quarterback’s ability to run the football. It’s just an extra guy that now you have to man up on. I think it gives us some advantages.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. UNLV
- Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 1-5, 0-3 MW; Rebels 2-4, 1-1
- Series: Bulldogs lead 12-5