Breaking down Saturday’s season-opening matchup between Fresno State and Nebraska in Lincoln.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. at Memorial Stadium (86,047)
TV: Big Ten Network (Comcast 403, DirecTV 610, Dish 405, 410)
Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
Forecast: 75 degrees, partly cloudy, gentle wind
Keys to victory
1 Smash mouths – Fresno State’s offensive line lacks experience with 24 returning starts among the group, and there will be a lot of eyeballs on the play of tackles Christian Cronk and David Patterson. But they do have a chance, on paper, and if they are successful it bodes well. The two-deep for the Cornhuskers’ defensive line includes three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen. As a group, the eight have combined for nine career starts and no player has more than four.
2 Play with fire – It might not be the wisest move given the Cornhuskers’ big-play ability outside, but to be in this game the Bulldogs are going to have to get or create some breaks. The Nebraska quarterback is a good place to start. Tommy Armstrong Jr. completed only 55.2 percent of his passes a year ago and threw 16 interceptions, second most in the nation. If the Bulldogs can keep him in the pocket, and not let him extend or make plays with his feet, he might throw a few in their direction.
3 Burn bright – The receivers group is talented, but there is a lot still to prove for Jamire Jordan and KeeSean Johnson, now sophomores, as well as Aaron Peck, Da’Mari Scott and Delvon Hardaway. They didn’t help struggling quarterbacks much a year ago, but need to start right away this year against a wounded Nebraska secondary that will be without a senior starter in safety Nathan Gerry. Oh, and Nebraska was last in the Big Ten and 125th of 128 in the nation last season in explosive pass plays allowed with 60.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter opens his fifth season with Fresno State, with two Mountain West Conference championships and one division title on his resume.
But he also feels the weight of a 3-9 season a year ago as the Bulldogs visit Nebraska on Saturday. The three victories were the fewest by a Bulldogs team since 1978 when going 3-8, the 22.3 points scored per game their fewest since putting up 22 in 1983 and the 38.1 allowed their most going back through 1969.
In the third year of a five-year contract that is guaranteed, there has been speculation DeRuyter is in a make-or-break season, but that is the way it is just about every season.
“You always put pressure on yourself,” he said. “It’s just the nature of it, whether you’re in College Station, whether you’re at Fresno State, wherever you are there’s pressure.
“If you’re a coach and that affects you, then you probably shouldn’t be in this business. I don’t worry about it. I control the things that we can control. I like where our team is right now and we’ll deal with those things after the season.”
Athletic director Jim Bartko said he wouldn’t go so far as making this a win-or-else season.
“Obviously, 6-8, 3-9, nobody is happy with that,” Bartko said. “He and his staff are probably the least happy with that. We made some big changes last year in the coaching staff, which is never easy. You’re telling good people that they’re no longer a part of your family.
“I would take our staff right now over anybody in the Mountain West Conference. I think we have a great staff. Talented. Experienced, whether it’s South Carolina, Alabama or Oregon with (Joe) Bernardi. We have probably the best special-teams coach in America, or one of them. Mark Weber is a great offensive line coach. And they came in mid-January, too. It’s not like we could change recruiting in a week. They’re going to take what we had, and Tim is a dedicated coach. I have full confidence this year we’re going to make strides and turn it around. Whether that’s 5-7, 8-4, 10-2, I think we’ll see a big difference and in Year 2 we’ll see an even bigger difference.
“I’m committed to this group and their passion and their enthusiasm. One year doesn’t change everything. If there had been no changes after last year and we had (three poor seasons) in a row, maybe you look at things differently.”
Signal strength – Along with a more multiple offense, offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau also installed a new system to signal plays in from the sidelines, using play boards featuring different symbols.
There are so many to choose from that the staff uses a hand dolly to get them from the Duncan Building to the practice field, but they’re designed for quick recognition, allowing the players to get to the line of scrimmage and get a play off as quickly as possible.
“Instead of saying eight or nine words in a huddle, you get one picture, one visual learning tool,” said Kiesau, who developed his signaling system when he was the offensive coordinator at Washington in 2013 and the Huskies went to the no-huddle. “That’s the way kids learn nowadays, so it’s easier for them. It’s faster. They can see it, get lined up and go play.”
He’s No. ? – Jamire Jordan went through fall camp wearing No. 91 on his practice jersey, after asking Kiesau if he could change his number to No. 1. Perform well, and the switch would be made.
The sophomore wideout, who wore No. 1 in the final scrimmage but was back in 91 when the Bulldogs returned to practice, has to wait until Saturday to see how he did.
“It’s a big surprise,” Kiesau said. “Not necessarily for the opponent, but for him.”
Coaching alignment – With a new offensive coordinator in Kiesau and new defensive coordinator in Lorenzo Ward, there are some changes on how the staff will work games.
Kiesau will be on the sideline along with offensive line coach Mark Weber, running backs coach/special-teams coordinator Dave Ungerer, receivers coach Burl Toler and tight ends coach Joe Bernardi. In the press box, the Bulldogs will have graduate assistant coaches Dylan Cruz and Ryan Springer, offensive analyst Brad Vonnahme and special-teams analyst Lucas Gingold.
Ward will be on the sideline with defensive line coach Pete Germano and outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson. In the box will be inside linebackers coach Nick Toth and graduate assistants Sean Alston and Todd Hunt.
Reality check – Nebraska is the only Power Five team on the Bulldogs’ schedule this season, which obviously is a plus. The Group of Five didn’t fare well in these matchups a year ago. A quick look:
▪ American – 10-13, .435
▪ Conference USA – 2-25, .074
▪ Mid-American – 4-20, .167
▪ Mountain West – 3-21, .125
▪ Sun Belt – 0-19, .000
The Sun Belt, by the way, lost those 19 games by an average of 33.2 points.
Et cetera – A Nebraska victory would be the 100th in college for coach Mike Riley. Riley won 93 games at Oregon State from 1997-98 to 2003-14 and six in his first season with the Cornhuskers.
▪ The Bulldogs have five seniors on offense – wideouts Aaron Peck, Da’Mari Scott and Mike Martens, center Jacob Vazquez and grad transfer quarterback Zach Kline. That is tied for the sixth fewest in the nation. The only teams with fewer are Minnesota (three) and Old Dominion, Florida, Troy and South Carolina (four).
▪ The Cornhuskers have not lost a home game played at night since 2008, winning 17 in a row.
▪ When Fresno State played Nebraska in 2014, a 55-19 Cornhuskers’ victory, Armstrong accounted for 325 yards of total offense with 260 passing and 65 rushing. He hit on 12 of 21 passes (57.2 percent) – the 12.4 yards per pass attempt is a career high.
▪ Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry, who is suspended for this game, ranked first on the team in tackles last season and second in 2014. He has started 29 games in his career.
▪ Virgil in an opening victory last season over Abilene Christian became the first Bulldogs true freshman to throw for a touchdown since Jeff Grady in 1999. He received a medical hardship waiver after suffering a shoulder injury in a loss to Utah in the third game of the season and could become the first redshirt freshman to throw a touchdown pass since … Kilton Anderson last season.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada