Fresno State won a football game, but its growth in that victory last week at Hawaii is somewhat suspect.
There isn’t much of a foundation to the Rainbow Warriors – who have won four, one and three games the past three seasons, and after the loss to the Bulldogs are 2-9 with two games to go and are ranked deep in the 100s nationally in just about any pertinent statistical category.
The Bulldogs (3-7) will get a much better idea as to any late-season improvement with their young and injury-depleted team Saturday in a nonconference game at BYU (7-3). While Fresno State goes in with a shot of confidence from last week’s victory, the Cougars are a tall order – particularly for the Bulldogs’ defense.
BYU has one of the best passing offenses Fresno State has faced this season, and at the heart of it are some big, physical receivers – 6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews, 6-5 Terenn Houk and 6-6 Nick Kurtz – who will tower over Bulldogs cornerbacks. The Cougars have four receivers with at least 400 passing yards for the first time since 2007 in Mathews (519), Devon Blackmon (517), Kurtz (468) and Mitchell Juergens (401), with Houk (378) likely to join them soon.
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Quarterback Tanner Mangum, who filled in for an injured Taysom Hill in the second game of the season, has hit 62.5 percent of his throws, averaging 7.6 yards per play and 244.2 yards per game with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His efficiency rating is 138.06.
He can put the ball just about anywhere and there’s a good chance it will be caught.
“It’s tough matchup-wise,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Every week you watch them and they’ll throw into coverage because one-on-one, those 50-50 balls, it’s not really 50-50. They’re coming down with them most of the time. That’s a big challenge.”
As old WAC foes in the 1990s, BYU and Fresno State have played nine times, with the Bulldogs leading the series 5-4 – including a 31-21 victory in the last meeting in 1998.
The Fresno State corners played a strong game at Hawaii, credited with a season-high eight pass breakups playing against an inconsistent offense.
But in a physical matchup against the Cougars, they are at a disadvantage – starters Jamal Ellis and Tyquwan Glass are 5-10 and 5-11, respectively, and Malcolm Washington, who in this game will back up the right and left corner positions, is 6-2.
The BYU receivers run disciplined routes, can sit in open spaces in a defense and also get downfield. They don’t have a frightening number of explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards – they have 33 – but 21 of those plays have gone for 30 or more yards, tied for 21st in the nation.
To give their corners some cover, the Bulldogs will try to disrupt Mangum and prevent the BYU quarterback from finding a rhythm.
“We can play a lot better defense if that quarterback is under duress,” DeRuyter said. “We have to do a great job with our disguise and disrupting routes.”
The Bulldogs are coming off their best offensive game of the season in last week’s victory at Hawaii, setting season-highs in points (42), passing yards (285) and total offense (455).
The pass rush will be critical, and the Bulldogs’ corners will have to get into those big receivers at the line of scrimmage and not give them a free run into their routes.
“We have to jam them up quick and stop their release, slow them down a little bit and throw off the timing with the quarterback,” Ellis said. “Especially with their size, we can’t just let them get a free release, because that’s just like an easy ball for them.
“We have to have the right mentality, put it in your head. Of course, they’re bigger than we are, but we put it in our heads and play with our hearts and we’ll be fine. Just go out there and compete. That’s the big thing. They might get some stuff on us, but we have to get them more times than they get us.”
For the Bulldogs, no part of that matchup will come easily. And they have to try to make sure nothing comes easily for the Cougars, as well. Two of BYU’s three losses came when the passing game misfired, including a 20-16 setback last week at Missouri when completing only 23 of 41 passes (56.1 percent) and averaging 6.0 yards per pass attempt, its lowest since a Week 4 loss at Michigan.
Fresno State senior running back Marteze Waller needs 51 yards to become the fifth running back in program history to rush for at least 3,000 yards in a career.
“It’s a well-coached group,” Bulldogs defensive-backs coach Marcus Woodson said. “They do a good job as far as reading coverages and sitting down in areas that they know the quarterback can get them the ball.
“It’s a really big challenge for us, but I’m excited coming out of last week and into this week to see how the kids respond and go out and compete. I like the confidence of our team right now. They see the benefit of winning the turnover battle, and that’s the one thing that we’ve been emphasizing throughout practice – you see guys stripping at the ball and you see guys breaking on it and making interceptions.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT BYU
- Saturday: Noon at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah
- Records: Bulldogs 3-7, Cougars 7-3
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- TV: BYUtv (Comcast 232)
- Online: ESPN3