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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. 91: Fresno State

The Mountain West beckons. Fresno State will make the move without Pat Hill, whose once-decorated tenure jumped the shark on Nov. 19, 2005 — U.S.C. 50, Fresno 42 — and never recovered. It was the defense that left town that evening; careful searching over the years since yielded no proof of life, and it was this defensive swoon that led Fresno to hire former Texas A&M interim head coach Tim DeRuyter as Hill’s replacement. What does DeRuyter bring to the table? Consider the two issues the Bulldogs must confront come September: this abysmal defense and the program’s new conference affiliation. DeRuyter tackles both concerns in one fell swoop, thanks not just to his defensive pedigree but also with his stops in the M.W.C. along the road to the Valley. In specific, DeRuyter has worked defensive wonders at Nevada and Air Force, the former a once-and-future conference rival and the latter one of the many new impediments the Bulldogs will face as a member of the Mountain West.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Fresno, Calif.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 63

2011 record
(4-9, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 101

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Weber St.
  • Sept. 8
    at Oregon
  • Sept. 15
    Colorado
  • Sept. 22
    at Tulsa
  • Sept. 29
    San Diego St.
  • Oct. 6
    at Colorado St.
  • Oct. 13
    at Boise St.
  • Oct. 20
    Wyoming
  • Oct. 27
    at New Mexico
  • Nov. 3
    Hawaii
  • Nov. 10
    at Nevada
  • Nov. 24
    Air Force

Last year’s prediction

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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell This wouldn’t have been a bad season for New Mexico State – but we’re not talking about the Aggies. Speaking of New Mexico State: the Aggies were one of six teams to beat Fresno by 13 points or less, and one of five opponents to win by a touchdown or less. Three of those touchdown-or-less defeats came during conference play, and each after Oct. 15, when the Bulldogs knocked off Utah State to move to 3-4, 2-0 in the WAC. Forget about individual games, however. Focus instead on the Bulldogs’ most pressing issue: the worst defense in program history. Fresno held no team under 21 points. Allowed at least 500 yards of total offense over three straight games, moving the Bulldogs from 3-4 to 3-7 – and sending Hill to the showers. Finished 100th nationally in total defense, 106th in scoring, 105th against the pass and 91st on third down. Hence Fresno’s decision to swap Hill for DeRuyter.

High point The 31-21 win over Utah State in October. This would be the only bowl team Fresno would beat all season, though it would go on to top six-win Hawaii, 24-21, on Nov. 19. As noted, Fresno was 3-4 overall and perfect in the WAC after beating the Aggies; the season was still very salvageable.

Low point Boise State came into Fresno on Oct. 7, in a game played in front of a national TV audience, and took a 16-0 first quarter lead, a 37-0 halftime lead and a 50-0 third quarter lead. Thankfully, the Bulldogs would score early in the fourth quarter before things got out of hand. Fresno State’s performance – even if it came against the Broncos – was one of the most embarrassing efforts from any team in the F.B.S. in 2011. It wasn’t just the score; that’s bad enough, but it’s not the whole story. Where Fresno really looked bad was in the sense that the team wanted to be anywhere but in its home stadium, on a Friday night, on national television: Boise was going to win, but the Bulldogs left their game – and their effort – in the locker room.

Tidbit I’m happy to report that Fresno reached one significant milestone before relieving Hill of his duties at the end of last season. Heading into the fall, the Bulldogs had blocked 92 kicks since Hill was hired prior to the 1997 season – this total includes the few times Fresno tackled the punter before he could get the kick away. Fresno would block nine kicks in 2012 to give the program 101 blocks over Hill’s 15 seasons in the Valley. The nine blocked kicks tied for the second-most in a single season under Hill, trailing only the 10 blocks Fresno posted in 1999.

Tidbit (shutouts edition) Fresno State has not pitched a shutout against an F.B.S. opponent since blanking San Jose State, 30-0, on Oct. 20, 2007. The Bulldogs have held only two F.B.S. opponents to single-digits over the three-plus years since: 24-7 over Rutgers in 2008 and 34-3 over New Mexico State in 2009. From 2003-7, Fresno held 11 opponents to nine points or less and pitched two shutouts.

Tidbit (defense edition) Fresno State would start the 2005 season with seven wins in eight games; the Bulldogs allowed 16.6 points per game over this span. Then came U.S.C., followed by another three losses, and Fresno limped into the offseason at 8-5 overall. Since holding Boise State to a touchdown on Nov. 10, 2005 – the game prior to U.S.C. – Fresno State has allowed 30.5 points per game. Over this 81-game stretch, the Bulldogs have given up at least 35 points 39 times, at least 40 points 23 times, at least 50 points nine times and at least 60 points twice.

Tidbit (eight wins edition) Since the start of college football’s modern era, every Fresno State head coach who served four or more years in the position won at least eight games in at least one season. Jimmy Bradshaw (1936-42) won at least eight games in 1937, 1939-40 and 1942. Clark Van Galder (1952-58) did the same in 1952 and 1955-56. Likewise for Cecil Coleman (1959-63), who did so in 1960 and 1961; Darryl Rodgers (1966-72) in 1970; Jim Sweeney (1976-77, 1980-96) in 1977, 1982, 1985-86 and 1988-93; and Pat Hill (1997-2011) in 1999, 2001-5, 2007 and 2009-10.

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 WR Seyi Ajirotutu (Carolina), DT Cornell Banks (St. Louis), QB Tom Brandstater (St. Louis), QB David Carr (New York Giants), LB Chris Carter (Pittsburgh), FB Tyler Clutts (Chicago), S Tyrone Culver (Miami), WR Jamel Hamler (Philadelphia), DE Logan Harrell (San Diego), OT Bryce Harris (Atlanta), OG Andrew Jackson (Atlanta), LB Ben Jacobs (Cleveland), OG Logan Mankins (New England), CB Richard Marshall (Miami), RB Ryan Mathews (San Diego), LB Garrett McIntyre (New York Jets), RB Lonyae Miller (Oakland), WR Marlon Moore (Miami), TE Bear Pascoe (New York Giants), S James Sanders (Arizona), DT Jason Shirley (Carolina), C Ryan Wendell (New England), WR Chastin West (Jacksonville), OT Kenny Wiggins (San Francisco), WR Devon Wylie (Kansas City).

Arbitrary top five list

49ers’ defensive backs (multiple seasons only)
1. Ronnie Lott (1981-90).
2. Jimmy Johnson (1961-76).
3. Tim McDonald (1993-99).
4. Merton Hanks (1991-98).
5. Eric Wright (1981-90).

Coaching

Tim DeRuyter (Air Force ’85), entering his first season. DeRuyter comes to Fresno from Texas A&M, where he spent the last two season as Mike Sherman’s defensive coordinator. Don’t blame DeRuyter for A&M’s disappointing 2011 season: his defense led the nation in sacks and finished second in the Big 12 against the run, and was not helped in any way, shape or form by the offense’s often puzzling play-calling. In fact, DeRuyter deserves nothing but praise for the work he did under Sherman, who hired DeRuyter away from Air Force following the 2009 season. Under DeRuyter, A&M’s defense turn from one of the Big 12’s worst into one of the league’s best. After Sherman was fired following the end of last year’s regular season, DeRuyter led A&M to a Texas Bowl win over Northwestern – so his career record stands at 1-0, meaning it can only be downhill from here. Fresno’s leap into the Mountain West allows DeRuyter to move back into his old stomping grounds. From 2007-9, he was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at his alma mater, Air Force; the Falcons’ secondary play ranked among the nation’s best under DeRuyter – just ask former Houston quarterback Case Keenum. Before returning to Air Force, where he started his coaching career in 1991, DeRuyter spent two years as Chris Ault’s defensive coordinator at Nevada. The Wolf Pack went 17-8 from 2005-6, making huge strides in DeRuyter’s second season before promptly dropping back down to Earth in 2007, after he left for Air Force. DeRuyter has also been as an assistant at Ohio (1995-98, 2002-4) and Navy (1999-2001). Here’s the best thing about DeRuyter: he’s coached under Fisher DeBerry, Jim Grobe, Ault and Troy Calhoun. He’s ready for the tough task that lies ahead.

Tidbit (coaching edition) You wouldn’t have faulted DeRuyter for cleaning house and hiring an entirely new staff, especially when given how Fresno went through the motions over the second half of last season. DeRuyter almost went there, retaining only one of Hill’s assistants. That he kept running backs coach Joe Wade in the fold shouldn’t be surprising: Fresno has landed some of the best running back play in program history over Wade’s three seasons with the team. DeRuyter’s offensive coordinator will be former Utah assistant Dave Schramm, who served as the Utes’ coordinator from 2009-10 before moving down to running backs coach last fall. If history holds, Schramm will run a multiple-set system in the spread vein. Fresno’s defensive coordinator, Nick Toth, came with DeRuyter from Texas A&M; as with the Aggies, Toth will also work with the linebackers. Another new assistant to watch: Tim McDonald, the former U.S.C. and San Francisco 49ers great, will coach the secondary. Fathers throughout Northern California will want to shake his hand, I’m sure.

Players to watch

The offense will be ahead of the defense. This was the case last fall – in every year since 2007, in fact – and will continue to be the case in 2012: the Bulldogs have enough weapons to hit the ground running in the new offensive system, but will need time to adjust to DeRuyter’s altered scheme on defense. Until the defense catches up, the Bulldogs will rely on this solid offense to simply outscore the opposition. It’s not a very palatable scenario for this fan base to consider, but for at least one more year, this offense will need to carry this team to victory.

After posting one of the finest seasons by a quarterback in program history as a first-year starter, junior Derek Carr should be tickled over the opportunity to play pitch-and-catch in the new spread-based system. Schramm will give Carr at least three receivers on every play; he’ll put Carr in a situation where his completion percentage will easily hover around 60-65 percent; and he’ll give Carr every chance to better his already outstanding sophomore totals. Last fall, Carr threw for 3,544 yards, the third-most in program history, while tossing 26 touchdowns against 9 picks and completing 62.9 percent of his attempts.

He wasn’t terrible early, when the Bulldogs took on California and Nebraska, merely tentative; such was to be expected from a rookie starter, regardless of his bloodlines and pedigree. Carr’s season took off after a confidence-building laugher over Idaho: from Oct. 15 through the end of the regular season, Carr threw 16 touchdowns with 4 interceptions while averaging 303.9 passing yards per game. He’ll carry that superb finish over to 2012, even if Carr, like the team as a whole, should take his lumps against the tough non-conference schedule. One year after bursting onto the scene, Carr stands as the best passing quarterback in the Mountain West.

Robbie Rouse may see his touches drop in this new offense, but that’s not a bad thing: Rouse has shown that he can produce when carrying the ball as much as any back in college football, but he can be equally productive even with a lessened workload. Last fall, Rouse ranked second nationally with 329 carries – 25.3 per game – and seventh with 1,549 yards rushing. He averaged 123.0 yards per game against B.C.S. conference competition, so there was nothing fake about his monster junior season, which came on the heels of a 1,000-yard sophomore campaign. Rouse simply churns out yard after yard, running hard and strong between the tackles, showing the sort of toughness that belies his slight stature.

So why is it that Rouse could near his junior production with this new offense moving away from a pro-style foundation? Because Fresno’s new system will spread things out, forcing opposing defenses to compensate either by widening their linebackers or adding more defensive backs to the back seven. In theory, this should give Rouse more room to operate. If nothing else, this offense should prevent opponents from moving another defender into the box; with most plays running out of the same look – my thinking, based on traditional spread systems – defenses will have a harder time pinpointing when Fresno will run or pass.

Don’t sleep on the transition underway along this offensive line. The shift linemen undergo when moving from a pro-style offense to the spread – or vice versa – typically goes overlooked, but it’s as vital a part of the process as the learning curve at quarterback, running back and receiver. The Bulldogs will handle this factor along with the loss of left tackle Bryce Harris, a 39-game starter during his career. In terms of personnel, Fresno’s starting lineup will feature five linemen who made at least seven starts last fall: left tackle Austin Wentworth, Matt Hunt at left guard, Richard Helepiko at center, Trevor Richter at right guard and Cody Wichmann at right tackle. Wentworth replaces Harris after starting 13 games at either right guard or tackle last fall. The Bulldogs have no depth, unfortunately, so this group needs to remain healthy.

Defensive ends will play outside linebacker. Outside linebackers move inside. Defensive tackles move outside to end. Such are the personnel moves that occur when a defense moves from the 4-3 to the 3-4; when it comes to the opposite switch, from the 3-4 to the 4-3, simply reverse the above changes. For Fresno State, years of defensive ineptitude has led to this: DeRuyter will imbue every ounce of his knowledge into overhauling a defense that simply must improve in every single meaningful category. In DeRuyter, the program has one of the top defensive minds in college football – just don’t expect a rapid reversal of fortune.

The defensive line isn’t good. The Bulldogs return starting ends Matt Akers (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Tristan Okpalaugo (31 tackles, 8.5 for loss), both seniors, but neither is a prototypical 3-4 end. The Bulldogs could keep Akers or both down on the line, but the two seniors lack the bulk to hold down the edge. A better fit at end would be senior Anthony Williams, a solid member of the rotation in 2010 who missed all of last season due to an injury. Williams could play outside if sophomore Tyeler Davison (16 tackles) proves that he can handle the job at nose tackle – the most key position on the line, and perhaps on the defense as a whole. If Davison is up for the task, the Bulldogs could flank him with Williams, who weighs 300 pounds, and junior Nikko Motta.

I think Akers could remain at end if he bulks up, but Okpalaugo should be moved to outside linebacker. He’s already proven himself to be a disruptive presence coming off the edge; Okpalaugo could make some plays standing up as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Fresno already has one starter on the outside locked in place: Travis Brown (85 tackles), a two-time all-WAC pick and last year’s leading tackler. Brown could really blossom working in this system under DeRuyter and Toth. Other options at outside linebacker include Akers, senior Shawn Plummer and sophomore Donovan Lewis (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Jeremiah Toma (44 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Patrick Su’a (37 tackles) will start in the middle.

The Bulldogs were crippled last fall by two season-ending injuries at safety. The first, to star free safety Phillip Thomas, came just days prior to the start of the season. The second, to strong safety Derron Smith, came in the third game of the year. These losses forced Fresno to turn to seniors Terrance Dennis (71 tackles) and Cristin Wilson (47 tackles), and the pass defense suffered as a result. Getting a full season out of Thomas, one of the Mountain West’s best defensive backs, and Smith, who was playing well at the time of his injury, will do wonders for Fresno’s secondary. At worst, last year’s injuries allowed the Bulldogs to increase their depth at safety. McDonald will have some weapons to work with.

Fresno State loses two cornerbacks, Isaiah Green and Jermaine Thomas – the pair split time in the starting lineup in 2011 – but returns junior L.J. Jones (56 tackles, team-best 3 interceptions) and sophomore Davon Dunn, last year’s nickel back. Both will improve with time, not to mention get better under DeRuyter’s direction. But Dunn, a converted receiver, is still learning the position; Jones might be the only defensive back who forced turnovers last fall, but I wonder if he’s capable of being a stopper against this tougher schedule.

What should you expect from this defense? Improvement, but only so much. And remember that the Bulldogs can only improve defensively; last year’s defense was atrocious. Eventually, and perhaps once the schedule lessens over the second half, the Bulldogs will begin playing defense on DeRuyter’s terms. These terms are simple: bring the fight to the offense, not vice versa. When given the right tools, DeRuyter can create a defense that gets to the quarterback and forces turnovers as well as any group in football. Fresno will improve in these regards in 2012, but this defense stands in the bottom half of the Mountain West.

Position(s) to watch

Wide receiver Fresno State lost two valuable targets in the passing game – one to graduation, the other via a transfer. The latter, would-be junior Jalen Saunders, transferred to Oklahoma in early May. He takes with him a strong portion of Fresno State’s offensive explosiveness: Saunders averaged 21.3 yards per his 50 receptions, scored 12 times as a receiver and added another two scores on the ground. Carr’s next-favorite target, Devon Wylie, made a team-best 56 grabs while serving as the WAC’s most dangerous punt returner. Losing this pair – especially Saunders, which was somewhat unexpected – puts a slight dent in Fresno’s desire to hit the ground running in Schramm’s spread offense. The good news, however, is that the Bulldogs still have enough depth for the new system’s multiple-receiver sets.

The receiver corps goes six deep. Will that be enough for this offense? Probably not; the Bulldogs would love to go eight or nine deep, and they will after another one or two recruiting cycles. For now, Schramm and DeRuyter will need the six leading receivers to quickly grasp the new system while doing their best to remain healthy. Topping the depth chart is senior Rashad Evans (44 receptions for 351 yards), an 11-game starter last fall and the team’s leading returning receiver. Evans, junior Isaiah Burse (40 for 436) and sophomore Josh Harper (32 for 475) are the Bulldogs’ most seasoned options in the passing game; it stands to reason that this trio will be Carr’s favorite targets in the passing game.

Harper strikes me as the one receiver likely to benefit from Saunders’ departure. Evans and Burse are reliable; Harper has game-breaking ability, and this offense is searching for play-makers on the outside to compliment a steady running game. I also think that sophomore Victor Dean – the biggest receiver on the roster, and a major talent – is due to play a large role, especially in the red zone. Both Harper and Dean have all-conference potential. Fresno State also returns junior A.J. Johnson (8 for 154) and redshirt freshman Davante Adams. There’s your top group. All that remains is for Schramm and DeRuyter to work out a rotation. Again, Fresno hopes that this sextet remains free of injuries.

Game(s) to watch

The good news for Fresno State is that the four games I believe to be the most unwinnable – Oregon, Tulsa, Boise State and Nevada; Tulsa because its offense will be too much for the still-working Bulldogs’ defense to handle – come on the road. The bad news is that there isn’t much time for this team to come up for air. Weber State is followed by Oregon, Colorado, Tulsa and San Diego State; Colorado State is followed by Boise State; Wyoming and New Mexico are followed by Hawaii, Nevada and Air Force. Basically, it’s hard to imagine how Fresno is going to mount an extended winning streak.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s talent here, but talent is rarely an issue at Fresno State. There’s talent at quarterback, where Carr is due to make some national noise; at running back, with Rouse a threat for another 1,300-yard season; at receiver, even with the two losses; and at safety, if Thomas and Smith can remain healthy. There are issues to be found elsewhere, unfortunately. The offensive line has a starting five in place but can’t afford any injuries. The defensive line is a question mark. The entire front seven on defense is undergoing an enormous transition. Cornerback play is a concern, especially when it comes to forcing turnovers in the passing game. These issues revolve solely around personnel, and they’re sizable concerns; when it comes to this season, however, Fresno’s struggles will stem more from the massive changes currently underway throughout the program. A new head coach, a nearly brand-new staff and new systems on both sides of the ball. The offense might hit the ground running in a system tilted towards the spread, but the defense needs work, and DeRuyter needs time to get the Bulldogs rolling in the 3-4 set. And there’s the new conference to consider, not to mention a non-conference schedule that includes Oregon, Colorado and Tulsa. This is a year of transitions for a program used to the status quo. It feels weird, but it also feels good. Fresno State just needs to be willing to take some lumps while DeRuyter and his staff go to work. Once the talent catches on, this could be fun.

Dream season Fresno State starts slow, losing three straight after Weber State, but finds a comfort zone once the season turns to Mountain West play. The Bulldogs go 7-1 in the M.W.C., losing to Nevada in November but – close your eyes and dream – beating Boise State on the road.

Nightmare season After beating Weber State, the Bulldogs embark on a seven-game losing streak. After beating New Mexico, the Bulldogs head into the winter on a three-game losing streak.

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 – though the site has been quiet since last September — and at the Web site of The Fresno Bee.

Fresno State’s all-name nominee DE Suli Faletuipapai.

Word Count

Through 34 teams 117,865.

Up Next

Who is No. 90? The head coach at tomorrow’s university graduated from the high school with the most state championships of any school in the country.

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Comments

  1. Redwolf4life says:

    Edina High School, so I’ll guess Minnesota.

  2. David says:

    Hawai’i coach Norm Chow, Punahou School

  3. Steve says:

    Great article you know your stuff.

  4. David says:

    That is absolutely the most complete and accurate assessment I have read for Fresno State football, ever. As a long time Fresno fan I want to thank you for your research and committment on a well written article.

  5. george says:

    Punahou High has a number of prominent grads including Monti Teo and maybe someone more well known. 322 championships is a winner.

    Paul: There’s someone else who went to Punahou, but I can’t think of his name… something that starts with an O.

  6. john says:

    You should write for the school’s website or the Fresnobee lol. Very impressed.

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