Fresno State passing game ‘strength’ looks more like symptom

It would appear a strength, as it was in 2013 when Fresno State had three receivers ranked in the top 10 in the Mountain West Conference in receptions and Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse and Josh Harper became only the fifth trio in NCAA history to have 1,000-yard seasons for the same team.

Or in 2012, when the Bulldogs had three in that top 10 with Adams, Burse and running back Robbie Rouse.

But this season, with KeeSean Johnson first, Aaron Peck fifth and Jamire Jordan ninth going into the weekend, that kind of balance may be more of a reflection on the Bulldogs’ inconsistencies on offense and the trouble they have had with their pass protection.

Up against a tricky 3-3-5 played by San Diego State on Friday in a 17-3 homecoming loss to the Aztecs, Fresno State game-planned accordingly and at times put a sixth offensive lineman into the game, lining up a center, two guards and three tackles. It kept its running back in to pass block.

KeeSean Johnson, Aaron Peck and Jamire Jordan have accounted for 80.5 percent of the Bulldogs’ receptions and 87.4 percent of their receiving yards. That’s 103 of their 128 receptions and 1,423 of their 1,628 yards.

They had six or seven to block the four or five defenders that San Diego State sent after quarterback Chason Virgil when he set up to throw, but that doesn’t leave a whole lot downfield.

“You play a team like San Diego State, they’re going to pressure you a bunch,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “You have to protect your quarterback. But you have to pick your spots. If they’re not pressuring and you’re keeping everybody in, then you might be wasting a guy.

“But if that fourth option is not a great option and you’re better off having that guy stay in and protect, that’s the decision we made when we game-planned for San Diego State. Because of the way they play defense, we thought that was the best way to go.”

Virgil ended up targeting only four players – Johnson (12), Peck (8), Jordan (2) and tight end Kyle Riddering (1). That is the fewest he has had all season and also the way it has trended for the most part all season.

Here are the targets and receptions for the Bulldogs’ receivers:

▪ WR KeeSean Johnson: 74 targets, 44 receptions

▪ WR Aaron Peck: 62 targets, 34 receptions

▪ WR Jamire Jordan: 48 targets, 25 receptions

▪ TE Chad Olsen: 12 targets, 6 receptions

▪ RB Dejonte O’Neal: 8 targets, 7 receptions

▪ TE Kyle Riddering: 7 targets, 2 receptions

▪ WR Delvon Hardaway: 7 targets, 3 receptions

▪ RB Dontel James: 5 targets, 2 receptions

▪ WR Mike Martens: 5 targets, 1 reception

▪ WR Justin Allen: 3 targets, 1 reception

▪ RB Treyvon Green: 2 targets, 2 receptions

▪ TE Jared Rice: 1 target, 1 reception

The Bulldogs were in a sense trapped there, as an offensive line that had only 24 returning starts going into the season continues to develop. To get more players or positions involved and open up the passing game would require going lighter with protections, and against the Aztecs that is a difficult call.

5.1 Yards per pass play against San Diego State, a season-low for the Bulldogs

Fresno State went into the weekend ranked 10th in the Mountain West for fewest sacks allowed with 16.

San Diego State was tied for sixth in sacks, but also leading the conference in total defense and ranked second in lowest opponent completion percentage and yards per pass attempt.

“We’d like to get more balls thrown to our backs, more balls thrown to our tight ends,” DeRuyter said. “But a lot of it comes back to coverage and how you’re being defended. If they’re rushing four and playing quarters (coverage) then you really want to get a great spread out of it. But a game plan like what we had here, you had to get some chunk plays and you’re not getting a lot of chunk plays to running backs or tight ends.”

Fresno State, in fact, went in with only two rushing plays of 20 or more yards by a running back and one pass of 20 or more to a tight end. James had runs of 34 and 24 yards at Nevada, and Olsen a 31-yard reception against Sacramento State.

The Aztecs got to Virgil only twice and were not credited with a quarterback hurry, but their secondary kept things very well covered.

The Bulldogs averaged 5.1 yards per pass attempt, their lowest this season, and if not for Jordan and another stellar catch for a 49-yard gain in the fourth quarter it would have been just 3.5.

I think they’ve made a ton of strides. I think they’re going to get better as the season goes along and the good news is were going to have the vast majority of them back for at least a year if not two. It’s trending the right way, but we have to get them better this week. Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on the offensive line

In 2012 and ’13, running a different scheme under former coordinator Dave Schramm, quarterback Derek Carr had more weaponry to work with and made better use of it and the Bulldogs averaged 6.0 or more per pass attempt 20 times in 26 games.

Receptions by running backs accounted for 16.9 percent of completions in 2013 and 19.9 percent in 2012, but only 8.5 percent this season.

Receptions by wideouts other than the Big Three in 2013 and the top two in 2012 accounted for 9.9 and 29.7 percent of completions, but only 3.9 percent this season.

What happened there? – The Bulldogs had a fourth-and-1 at their 39 with 7:15 remaining, down 17-3, and ended up taking a delay of game with their offense on the field trying to make a first down.

Fresno State has had difficulty a couple of times this season with clock management and getting a play run, and this was more of an execution error on the field.

“It took a little bit of time to get the play in and I think Chason lost track of the clock,” DeRuyter said. “The play we called had a motion in it, so you have to get lined up, get set, get the motion and obviously we didn’t execute it. We have to do a better job there from a coaching standpoint and an execution standpoint.”

The Bulldogs ended up punting and didn’t get the ball back until 2:03 remained, with San Diego State running the ball on 10 consecutive plays and converting a third-and-3 to keep the sticks and clock moving.

What now, Joker? – Senior outside linebacker Brandon Hughes, who had started five of the first six games and sat out the first half against Tulsa because of a suspension, has been declared ineligible due to a violation of NCAA policy and will miss the remainder of the season.

Hughes will remain with the team and play on the scout team during practice, but the Bulldogs’ outside linebacker positions are not particularly deep.

He started showing some flashes of what he can do. He played very physically. I think the more reps he gets the better he’s going to be. DeRuyter on linebacker Tobenna Okeke, who made a good impression while getting a start Friday against San Diego State

Tobenna Okeke, who missed time in fall camp and was slowed into the season because of an ankle injury, started at the boundary (Joker) linebacker position against the Aztecs and had a productive game. He was in on a career-high eight tackles and was credited with an assist on a sack.

“I thought Okeke played pretty well,” DeRuyter said. “He started showing some flashes of what he can do. He played very physically. I think the more reps he gets the better he’s going to be, and we have to get Josh Hokit going. Josh has been doing some good things, but now obviously there’s more emphasis on getting him game-ready and increasing his reps.”

Pumphrey piles on – San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey, who came in leading the nation in rushing with 178.2 yards per game, ran for 220 and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs on 38 carries. He went over the 200-yard mark for the third time this season and raised his career total to 5,383.

In moving from 14th to eighth on the NCAA career rushing list, Pumphrey passed, among others, LaDanian Tomlinson (5,263), Herschel Walker (5,259) and Archie Griffin (5,177).

FRESNO STATE AT UTAH STATE

  • Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium (22,059)
  • Records: Bulldogs 1-6, 0-3 Mountain West; Aggies 2-4, 0-3
  • TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)

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