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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 63: Fresno State

Of all the developments that have occurred in Fresno since the end of another eight-win season, it’s funny to think that the biggest change may be found right under the program’s feet: turf. As in field turf, as in a new playing surface at Bulldog Stadium, where the Bulldogs have used natural grass since the stadium’s construction in 1980. So what’s the big difference between grass and turf? Well, to paraphrase Tug McGraw, I’ve never smoked turf. But I can say that the number of injuries various Bulldogs have suffered over the years thanks to a poor playing surface surely was the impetus behind this move. Fresno State hopes that the change from grass to turf removes the dangling specter of various tweaks and sprains and yields a far healthier team, one that can take home not just the WAC in 2011 but also the Mountain West in 2012 and beyond.

Conference
WAC

Location
Fresno, Calif.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 52

2010 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 48

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at California
  • Sept. 10
    at Nebraska
  • Sept. 17
    North Dakota
  • Sept. 24
    at Idaho
  • Oct. 1
    Mississippi
  • Oct. 7
    Boise St.
  • Oct. 16
    Utah St.
  • Oct. 22
    at Nevada
  • Nov. 5
    Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 12
    at N.M.S.U.
  • Nov. 20
    at Hawaii
  • Nov. 26
    San Jose St.
  • Dec. 3
    at S.D.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

The question should not be why I don’t have the Bulldogs first in the WAC, but why I don’t have them second. For one reason: Fresno, unless major strides have been made in the spring, does not have what it takes on defense. As noted, Fresno has been on a downward spiral on defense over the last four years; since, one could say, U.S.C. dropped 50 points on the Bulldogs in November of 2005. Will this year be any different? There’s no reason to think so, in my opinion. We’re entering prove-me-wrong territory with this defense: until they show me something, it’s only fair to expect an underwhelming performance. If the Bulldogs can develop a stouter front seven, this could be a 10-win team: losses to Boise State and one of the three B.C.S. conference opponents. It’s just impossible to make such a prediction; Fresno needs to show us something first. I do think the Bulldogs are a lock for eight wins, with second place in the WAC coming down to a home game against Nevada.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The year seemed eerily familiar: lose to the odd B.C.S. conference foe, lose to the three best teams in the WAC, lose a bowl game. This has become old hat for Fresno State, which continues to post eight-win seasons but does so without making any noise on a national level. What else has become far too common a sight in the Valley? A lack of defense, that’s what: Fresno allowed at least 339 points for the fifth consecutive season, with the 390-point showing standing as the third-worst defensive performance in program history. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs also took a step back offensively, scoring nearly five fewer points per game than in 2009. So how did Fresno win eight games? By taking care of business against the weaklings of the WAC, as the Bulldogs have done for years. Only one of the eight wins, Illinois, came against a bowl participant; another win came over six-win Idaho; another came over Cal Poly of the F.C.S.; and the remaining five came over teams that combined to win 15 games on the season. If the Fresno State fan base bemoans a lack of respect on the national stage, this is why: it’s hard to view this program on the same level as from 2001-5 when it fails to beat the good teams on its schedule.

High point A win over Cincinnati to start the year and wins over Idaho and Illinois to end it, all coming at home. Fresno takes great pride in taking down B.C.S. conference foes, if you hadn’t heard. These were also the three best wins on Fresno’s schedule; Louisiana Tech, at 5-7, comes in fourth.

Low point Losses to the three best teams in the WAC: Boise State, Nevada and Hawaii. The Bulldogs won’t soon forget a 51-0 loss at Boise, which the third straight time the Broncos had scored at least that many against Fresno. But the loss that hurt the most was a 35-34 home loss to Nevada: Fresno hung tight and had a shot, but the defense couldn’t keep the Wolf Pack out of the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Tidbit Fresno State’s 2011 schedule has a rather distinctive 2012 feel. That’s because the Bulldogs will face four teams that will be part of the M.W.C. when the program makes the move after this season: Boise State, Nevada, Hawaii and San Diego State. Boise State has already made the move, while San Diego State has been part of the Mountain West since 1999; like the Bulldogs, Nevada and Hawaii leave the WAC after 2011.

Tidbit (Mountain West edition) So how has Fresno State fared against the teams that will make up the Mountain West in 2012? Not too well, not too poorly — right about down the middle. Against the nine other teams that will compose the M.W.C., the Bulldogs hold a career mark of 97-96-6, with most of that damage coming against the trio of San Diego State (20-26-4), Nevada (24-17-1) and Hawaii (21-21-1). The rest: 2-4 against Air Force, 4-9 against Boise State, 4-7 against Colorado State, 8-4 against New Mexico, 11-4 against U.N.L.V. and 3-4 against Wyoming.

Tidbit (special teams edition) Fresno State is nearing the century mark in special teams blocks under Hill: the Bulldogs have blocked 92 kicks — punt, field goals and extra-points — since 1997, if we include times that the Bulldogs have tackled the punter before he could get the kick away. Fresno blocked eight kicks a year ago, so we may be close to hitting that 100 mark. When they do, I hope the Bulldogs get the ball and put it in a glass case.

Former players in the N.F.L.

28 WR Seyi Ajirotutu (San Diego), WR Bernard Berrian (Minnesota), QB Tom Brandstater (Miami), QB David Carr (San Francisco), LB Chris Carter (Pittsburgh), S Tyrone Culver (Cleveland), OG Andrew Jackson (Atlanta), CB A.J. Jefferson (Arizona), DT Louis Leonard (Denver), P Robert Malone (Tampa Bay), OG Logan Mankins (New England), CB Richard Marshall (Carolina), RB Ryan Matthews (San Diego), LB Garrett McIntyre (New York Jets), RB Lonyae Miller (Dallas), WR Marion Moore (Miami), TE Bear Pascoe (New York Giants), DT Bryan Robinson (Arizona), S James Sanders (New England), TE Stephen Spach (Arizona), QB Billy Volek (San Diego), C Ryan Wendell (New England), WR Chastin West (Green Bay), LB Sam Williams (Oakland), WR Paul Williams (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Fresno State quarterbacks in the N.F.L.
1. Trent Dilfer (1994-2007).
2. David Carr (2002-present).
3. Billy Volek (2001-present).
4. Kevin Sweeney (1987-88).
5. Nick Papac (1961).

Coaching

Pat Hill (U.C. Riverside ’73), 108-70 after 14 seasons in Fresno. Hill’s record places him fourth on the WAC’s career wins list, and his total of 11 career bowl appearances with the Bulldogs is second-best in the history of the conference. Last fall’s eight-win finish gave Fresno State four consecutive winning seasons after slipping to an atypical 4-8 in 2006. All told, only two of Hill’s 12 teams have finished below .500 (1998, 2006). Still, the Bulldogs — largely due to Boise State’s ascension — have stayed out of the national conversation over the last handful of seasons, struggling to land the marquee win that defined the early years of the Hill era. This year provides an opportunity to make one last run in the WAC before moving to the Mountain West, where the Broncos patiently await the program’s arrival. While Fresno had seen success before his arrival — Jim Sweeney won 144 games — Hill has taken the Bulldogs onto the national stage. Not surprisingly, Hill played a major role in Fresno’s success under Sweeney, serving as the offensive line coach from 1984-89. The Bulldogs won at least nine games four times over that six-year span, finishing with an overall mark of 53-16-1. That stretch as a Fresno assistant was Hill’s third collegiate stop, following stints as the offensive line coach at Utah (1977-80) and U.N.L.V. (1981-82). After two seasons at Arizona (1990-91), Hill moved on to the N.F.L., where he spent five years with the Baltimore Ravens (1992-6). He has won at least eight games nine times, most notably in 2001, when he led the Bulldogs to an 11-3 mark and, briefly, a top 10 ranking. As long as Hill is in Fresno, the Bulldogs are a near-lock for bowl eligibility.

Players to watch

After playing a bit as a true freshman — and playing pretty well — I thought Derek Carr was a definite challenger to Ryan Colburn’s starting status at quarterback heading into 2010. I was wrong, as Colburn held onto his role and played pretty well, actually, but Fresno State was extremely wise to redshirt Carr rather than have him take limited snaps in a reserve role. Now a  redshirt sophomore, Carr — yes, David’s younger brother — is ready to take off. It’s not just the name that has me excited: it’s his ability to be both a passer and runner, not to mention the fact that Fresno can feel secure about its potential at the position for the next three seasons. Colburn was a nice option — he was a gamer, someone who didn’t have great physical skills but got the job done — but from all accounts, Carr might take this offense to another level.

Carr won’t have Jamel Hamler to work with at receiver, but the cupboard is far from bare. Junior Rashad Evans (39 receptions for 424 yards) should be one of Carr’s favorite targets, but he doesn’t strike me as the sort of big-play threat this offense covets. That role might be filled by sophomore Jalen Saunders (30 for 462), who led the Bulldogs with 15.4 yards per catch while playing a role returning kicks. Another sophomore, Isaiah Burse, made a similar impact on special teams while adding 13 grabs for 190 yards.

There’s even more youth: sophomore A.J. Johnson (20 for 241) and talented redshirt freshman Josh Harper will factor into the rotation. One thing these receivers do lack is size, though Harper comes in around 6’2; if you’re looking for size and athletic ability, take note of redshirt freshman Victor Dean, all 6’6 of him, who was the breakout star of the spring game. If he can develop a rapport with Carr, Dean might become Fresno’s leading red zone target.

It’s very important, in my mind, that the Bulldogs find another running back to take some pressure off junior Robbie Rouse. He had a very nice 2010 campaign, filling some pretty big shoes by rushing for 1,129 yards and 8 scores on 205 carries. Rouse’s year was highlighted by a four-week stretch in WAC play that saw him average 192.3 yards per game, cracking the 200-yard mark against Nevada and Louisiana Tech. But no other back carried the ball more than 76 times, and Rouse does not have the sort of frame conducive to doing all the heavy lifting on the ground. So someone needs to step up and be a capable second back: it might be junior A.J. Ellis (281 yards, 3 scores) or former U.C.L.A. transfer Milton Knox, who has the sort of size and running style to compliment Rouse well.

Yeah, the defense wasn’t great in keeping teams off the scoreboard, but the Bulldogs were certainly better both against the run and the pass a year ago after an absolutely disastrous 2009 season. The improvement can be traced back to a beefed-up pass rush; as we all know by know, a healthy pass rush can offset most defensive liabilities, especially any concerns in the secondary. So you can’t blame some for being worried about life in Fresno without Chris Carter, the superb rush end who garnered far too little national respect.

Chicken-or-egg argument: Logan Harrell (46 tackles, 14 for loss, 10.5 sacks) was superb last fall, but was his success in getting pressure in the backfield due to Carter’s presence at end? I’d think so. But there’s also no doubt that Harrell, a junior, is talented enough to continue to put up such lofty numbers, Carter or no. Still, he’ll need to do so while becoming the center of attention for opposing offensive linemen. Harrell will be joined inside by nose tackles Chase McEntee, a senior, and redshirt freshman Tyeler Davison.

It’s just not possible for one end to step in and replace Carter’s production, so it makes sense that Fresno State will combat his departure with several linemen. There will be starters, of course, but look for as many as five or six ends to be part of the rotation; some of the depth will depend on how well a few youngsters, including a pair of incoming freshmen, take to the system. For now, junior Matt Akers and sophomore Nat Harrison are the starters, while senior Donavaughn Pritchett and Tristan Okpalaugo hold the top backup roles. Unfortunately, only Harrison has taken significant snaps, so it’s an unproven group. But there is some talent.

The front seven lost another leading figure to graduation in middle linebacker Ben Jacobs, last year’s leading tackler. His leadership will be very difficult to replace; his production, on the other hand, might be fairly easily duplicated by sophomore Jeremiah Toma, last year’s backup and a pretty nice prospect. He’ll be backed up by redshirt freshman Ota Fifita, meaning there’s little experience here, but I’m intrigued by Toma’s potential as a first-year starter. He’ll be flanked by a pair of returning starters in senior Kyle Knox (74 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and junior Travis Brown (79 tackles, 9 for loss, 2 sacks). If you’re looking for a defender or two to step into a leadership role, look no further than this pair.

Only one starter returns in the secondary, but he’s a good one: junior free safety Phillip Thomas (64 tackles, 3 picks) has all-conference potential, and gives a dash of big-play ability to a secondary that fared well statistically last fall but needs to do a better job forcing turnovers. Of course, the big question with this secondary is whether it can again rank second in the WAC in pass defense – in terms of yards allowed per game – if the pass rush doesn’t remain as potent as it was a year ago. That’s a major, major question.

It’s not surprising to see the most experienced returning defensive backs hold starting roles as Fresno State enters the summer. Sophomore Deron Smith (28 tackles) has a strong hold on the strong safety spot after playing in a reserve role last fall. The lone senior poised to play a key role is cornerback Isaiah Green, who is set to be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore L.J. Jones, who’s a bit more polished than redshirt freshman Davon Dunn.

It all starts up front, as it often does. If – and it’s a pretty sizable if – the Bulldogs can continue to get to the quarterback, perhaps the pass defense can continue to do a nice job despite the three new starters. But expecting at least a slight decline in production is only natural. Above all, it is extremely important that Fresno not slide back to its 2009 form, when the defense was the worst in program history. That would be devastating to this team’s bowl hopes.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Fresno’s offensive front did nice work in the running game but was terrible in pass protection, allowing the third-most sacks in the WAC despite making the second-fewest passing attempts. So is it good or bad news that the line returns only one starter? Don’t fool yourself: you can make that case when finding a new starting running back, tight end, what have you, but it’s never helpful to insert four new starters along the offensive line. Fresno will attempt to make the most of a potentially crippling situation by being positive: things can’t get much worse in pass protection, and this group does look like one that will experience success opening up holes on the ground. The lone returning starter is senior left tackle Bryce Harris, a converted defensive lineman who brings two years of starting experience into 2011. How will the rest of the line shake out? Junior Matt Hunt and Richard Helepiko are penciled in at left guard and center, respectively, with Helepiko stepping into the fairly large shoes of multiple-year starter Joe Bernardi. Helepiko started two games for Bernardi last fall, so that will help ease his transition into the lineup. Senior Leslie Cooper is a solid choice at right guard; he started six games last fall before losing his spot following an ankle injury. Another option at right guard is former Nebraska transfer Quinton Toailoa, who seems to have recovered from the shoulder ailments that limited his effectiveness — and playing time — with the Cornhuskers. Sophomore Austin Wentworth takes over for Kenny Wiggins at right tackle after playing in eight games as a freshman, making one start at right guard. In my mind, Wentworth is the biggest question mark up front, followed by Helepiko — the latter because of the experience Fresno must replace at center. But make no mistake: the line as a whole is one big question mark.

Game(s) to watch

This schedule is not for the faint of heart. But it does provide Fresno with opportunities to make noise, thanks to dates with teams like California, Nebraska, Boise State and Mississippi. The Bulldogs should not worry about their overall record but merely about their WAC record, so games against Hawaii and Nevada are the biggest of the season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This schedule is a beast. I don’t think we’ve seen a tougher one yet this summer: I see at least seven, perhaps as many as nine bowl teams; I see a pair of teams with very strong national title hopes; I see another pair of B.C.S. conference teams hungry for a rebound off last season; and I see both of Fresno State’s prime WAC rivals on the road. It’s as tough a road as you’ll find anywhere, B.C.S. conference or otherwise, and it’s really going to task this team on a weekly basis. But this is Fresno State, after all, and few other programs embrace a challenge quite like these Bulldogs. And that, along with the potential for a terrific offense, is why I can’t immediately pencil the Bulldogs in for a tough season – though I do see this team struggling to post another eight-win regular season. Now, about this offense: Carr seems like a keeper, and he has a number of weapons to work with in the running game and through the air. Yeah, the offensive line is a concern, but perhaps Carr’s mobility will see this team fare better in pass protection. Sadly, the defense is again a substantial question mark. Can the pass defense continue to rank among the WAC’s best without such a strong pass rush? It’s the biggest question Fresno must address come September, and the answer might go a long way towards determining this team’s success. Above all, however, I look at this schedule and see an uphill climb towards eight or nine wins. Still, the Bulldogs could still take home the WAC even with a 7-6 regular season – say, go 5-2 in the WAC but 2-4 in non-conference play. Fresno needs to make that its goal: ignore the overall record, win the WAC. That the Bulldogs play Nevada and Hawaii on the road has me thinking Fresno will not take home the conference crown, but this team is right there with the pair as the best teams in the WAC.

Dream season The Bulldogs leave the WAC in style, finishing conference play undefeated and knocking off California, Boise State and San Diego State in non-conference play.

Nightmare season The schedule proves too difficult to overcome. For only the second time since 1999, Fresno State finishes below .500.

In case you were wondering

Where do Fresno State fans congregate? Both Bark Board and Red Wave Report give you an avenue for Fresno State chatter and provide solid recruiting coverage. Additional information can be found at The Bulldog Bounce and at the Web site of The Fresno Bee. As always, list any blogs, message boards or local beat reporters I may have missed.

Word Count

Through 58 teams 168,573.

Up Next

Who is No. 62? Last fall, tomorrow’s program won less than eight games in a season for the first time since 2000.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Tim says:

    up next is Boston College

  2. Nick Seevers says:

    Technically the game vs Cal is a neutral site game at Candlestick, not AT&T

    Paul: I believe, though I’m not sure, that California is still considering that a home game. Which would give them more seats, etc. But I may be wrong. I’ll check in without someone over there after noon or so.

  3. schedule nit says:

    Texas is next!

    …or BYU?

  4. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    BYU was 5-7, 4-8, and 5-6 from 2002 to 2004 under the not-so-beloved Gary Crowton. BYU also only won 6 games in 2005 in Bronco Mendenhall’s first year.

    I’m with Tim, I think it’s BC.

  5. Sasser says:

    Texas was 9-3 in 2000, although I do really enjoy the sentiment, schedule nit.

    BC went 7-5 in their 2000 campaign and 7-6 last year. They’ll be up tomorrow.

  6. AJ says:

    Nick, Candlestick is not neutral…that’s ridiculous. It’ll be a home game for Cal for sure.

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