Fresno State is undefeated in five games against teams that run option offenses, beating New Mexico three times, Cal Poly once and Air Force once. But when it comes to the Falcons and a Mountain West Conference matchup Saturday, that will mean little to nothing for the Bulldogs as the look to win back-to-back games for the first time this season and put together a late-season bowl run.
Since the teams last met in 2012, Air Force has diversified its offense, adding significantly to the triple-option attack it had used successfully for so many years.
While the Bulldogs and every other Air Force opponent will invest practice after practice working against cut blocks from the Falcons, come game day they could just as easily see more traditional power and inside or outside zone.
“What they thrive on is being able to run a triple-option offense incorporated with a pro-style offense and seamlessly go back and forth,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “If you want to call defenses for triple-option, it doesn’t necessarily mesh with trying to stop a pro-style offense. That makes it difficult.
“When we played them three years ago, they were almost exclusively a triple-option team. They did some different things, but not to the extent they’re doing it now. Now, they’re very multiple and it makes it very tough on a play caller. If they were to line up and just run inside and outside zone and power against, say Michigan State, they’d probably be uphill. But the fact that they’re getting people to play triple-option, they lined up and ran power and inside and outside zone against them for some major chunk yardage. I mean, it’s a tough combination to try to defend.”
In that game at Michigan State, the Falcons rushed for 279 yards – the most against the Spartans since Nebraska racked up 313 rushing yards Nov. 3, 2012 – and between those games, the only team that came close was Ohio State. The Buckeyes ran for 268 yards against Michigan State last season and rushed for 273 yards in 2013.
Air Force had nine rushing plays that gained 10 or more yards and two that gained 20 or more. Quarterback Karsten Roberts also completed 6 of 9 passes for 149 yards with one touchdown and one interception, averaging 16.6 yards per attempt.
Michigan State was ranked No. 4 at that time and had allowed an average of 70.5 rushing yards in victories over Western Michigan and No. 7 Oregon.
“It’s always difficult against them (Air Force),” said defensive coordinator Nick Toth, who will be making those play calls. “They’re hard to call against because No. 1, the offense is so tough. No. 2, those players are so phenomenally disciplined. They play harder than anyone we’re going to play. They’re all nasty, physical guys. They have absolute belief that they’re going to win the game all the time.
“Then you add in the fact that they’ve evolved their scheme. Coach (Troy) Calhoun is really good at taking that option and mixing everything with it. It’s a challenge. It was a challenge three years ago, but we jumped on them early and they don’t like to be down and we got to be really aggressive and bring pressure. We got to take risk. In a game that might be a lot less high scoring, you have to be careful how much risk you’re taking. You want to blitz, but there’s a chance that play can go for 80 yards. It’s much harder now than it ever has been.”
Complicating matters for the Bulldogs is some youth on defense. Fresno State is expected to start freshman James Bailey at the outside (Sam) linebacker for the second game in a row. Another true freshman, Nela Otukolo, gets reps at inside (Mike) linebacker, and two of the three players who will start up front are in their first season as starters.
“Knowing your assignments and being consistent is paramount,” DeRuyter said. “When you have young, talented guys, sometimes they think they can freelance. You can’t freelance against this offense, so we’ve got to be focused and be consistent. This is an offense that lulls you to sleep.
“They do a terrific job in changing up blocking schemes. They do it at a very fast pace and with a lot of efficiency, so you have to know your assignments and you have to do it with consistency because as soon as you don’t, an explosive play is going to happen.”
The Bulldogs haven’t had that often this season, but at least now they know it is there.
“Coming off of that last drive (against UNLV), they’re obviously different,” outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine said. “But when we broke down the film, everyone had their eyes right, everyone was doing the right assignment, so I definitely feel like we can use that as momentum.
“I know it was only one drive, but with how big a drive that was, with the rain pouring down and stuff like that, it can jump-start the laser-like focus we need to have for this game.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT AIR FORCE
- Saturday: 11 a.m. at Falcon Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 2-5, 1-3 Mountain West; Falcons 3-3, 2-1
- Online TV: ESPN3
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)