The Fresno State defense came into the season with a renewed determination. Tired of hearing about how it was the weak part of the Bulldogs, players committed themselves to working harder and getting better in the offseason.
So far, that determination has showed big time on the field. The Fresno State defense is vastly improved going into its big game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
A defense that had 11 total sacks last season has already surpassed that number in two games, with 12. Chris Carter, who had five sacks all of last season, has three. Logan Harrell is tied for the national lead with 3.5.
“I consider myself a captain of defense, and I took last season personal because every time I picked up the paper, there was something about our offense saving us,” Carter said in a phone interview. “Defensively, we really dropped the ball last year. This year, I wanted to turn it around. I got tired of doing the same old thing.”
A defense that gave up an average of 430 yards a game has so far given up an average of 273. Fresno State ranks No. 20 in total defense, a far cry from its 98 ranking a year ago. Since 2000, the Bulldogs' best statistical defense came in 2004, when they ranked No. 36 in total D.
But what has been even better than expected this season is the way the Bulldogs have shut down two mobile quarterbacks, something they could not have said in 2009.
Last week against Utah State, Diondre Borel had 66 yards rushing and only 106 yards passing. Compare that to his game last season, in which he had 345 yards of total offense. The same Aggies team that rolled up 421 yards of offense against Oklahoma in the season opener had 311 at home against the Bulldogs.
“The biggest thing is maturity,” Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. “Since they came back in January, they’ve worked very hard to improve themselves and worked hard against more spread looks and option looks. I feel really good about how we played on defense against our first two opponents.”
Indeed, Fresno State started doing something new at practice. Every day, they have 10 minutes of full-speed option work, not against the scout team, but against the first-team offense. The Bulldogs are not an option team, mind you, but Hill felt it important for his defense to go full speed against his best players.
“We have a couple young quarterbacks, wide receivers who played quarterback in high school,” Hill said. “If we can get that full speed look, that’s improved us. Doing it against scouts is not the same as doing it full speed against each other. It forces you to make plays in the open field. Our tackling in open field has improved. We have to do those things to improve.”
Carter praised his coaches for coming up with the idea, and said it has helped make them better.
“When you see it in games, you know this is nothing new,” Carter said. “We didn’t do that in years past. We didn’t take that much time to work on it in practice, but it becomes routine now. It’s nothing foreign to us.”
The Bulldogs face another mobile quarterback in Jeremiah Masoli, who has yet to have a breakout game for the Rebels. Ole Miss is struggling, having lost two unexpected games, against FCS Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt.
Fresno State has never beaten an SEC team, and the players understand Ole Miss is going to be extra motivated going into this game. But the Bulldogs are motivated, too. They want to show that they have what it takes to beat a team from an automatic qualifying conference on the road.
And that defense has what it takes to be pretty good, too.
“Any opportunity to go outside your league, especially the ones rated higher than yours and get a victory, it’s an opportunity well deserved through the work we’ve put in the past,” Carter said. “But we’re not going to make it too big. It’s not bigger than our season. It’s just another game.”