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1. Solidifying your gains
The order of wins and losses often dictates the narrative for your season. If you lose early before catching fire late, you end up with a story of redemption and, potentially, big hopes for the next year. If you win early and drop a couple of games late, things end up a little more sour, simply because the stakes got too high for you to maintain.
The narrative for Fresno State in 2013 was more latter than former. The Bulldogs began the season 10-0; with wins over San Jose State on the road and Utah State in the MWC title game, we know now that they would have qualified for a BCS bowl.
But a defense that had been decent for much of the year got absolutely torched in a shootout loss to SJSU, and while the Bulldogs went on to beat USU to take the conference title, the season ended with a thumping at the hands of USC in the Las Vegas Bowl.
If Fresno State had lost to USC in the season opener, fallen to SJSU a couple of weeks later, then ripped of 10 wins to finish the season, the end tale wouldn't have been quite as disappointing. Removing that context, however, you find a team that simply solidified its gains from the previous year. That alone makes it pretty encouraging.
When a new coach takes over and a program improves immediately and dramatically, it sets the bar in a pretty tough place. You're often expected to improve even more in Year 2, but from a stat perspective, the more likely result is regression. You bounce too high, too quickly, and you're probably going to fall back down to earth a bit. After four years of rather mediocre football at the end of the Pat Hill era, FS indeed surged in 2012 after Tim DeReyter took over as head coach. The Bulldogs jumped from 91st to 34th in the F/+ rankings and from 4-9 to 9-4 overall. They fell back to 49th in 2013, but 49th isn't 94th.
Fresno State indeed threatened to make a BCS bowl in 2013, but the Bulldogs were never a BCS-caliber team. The late-season losses just bumped them closer to where they should have been all along. And now they move forward having produced back-to-back top-50 results.
They must replace a trio of big names on offense, but DeRuyter has quickly built a sturdy, deep program. His defense should be experienced and aggressive, and if he can find a new, competent quarterback, a third straight top-50 result is likely.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 49|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Rutgers||91||52-51||W||34.7 - 42.6||L|
|7-Sep||Cal Poly||N/A||41-25||W||19.0 - 21.9||L|
|20-Sep||Boise State||45||41-40||W||34.2 - 25.9||W|
|28-Sep||at Hawaii||82||42-37||W||29.7 - 28.2||W|
|5-Oct||at Idaho||116||61-14||W||34.9 - 19.9||W||2.8|
|19-Oct||UNLV||96||38-14||W||40.1 - 19.7||W||8.5|
|26-Oct||at San Diego State||89||35-28||W||21.8 - 29.9||L||7.4|
|2-Nov||Nevada||88||41-23||W||32.4 - 28.7||W||6.5|
|9-Nov||at Wyoming||102||48-10||W||37.2 - 16.5||W||10.3|
|23-Nov||New Mexico||110||69-28||W||41.4 - 21.6||W||11.3|
|29-Nov||at San Jose State||74||52-62||L||46.2 - 42.0||W||8.0|
|7-Dec||Utah State||32||24-17||W||41.3 - 13.2||W||15.3|
|21-Dec||vs. USC||11||20-45||L||18.7 - 32.7||L||11.8|
|Points Per Game||43.4||6||30.3||87|
|Adj. Points Per Game||33.2||31||26.4||56|
2. False impressions
Stats are anti-social sometimes. It's like they go out of their way to disagree with you. The structure of Fresno State's schedule -- noteworthy, nationally televised home games early, followed by a slog of regional mediocrity in October and November (yes, there were three more games on national television, but against inferior MWC opponents) -- allowed Fresno State to make an impression with early, narrow, high-scoring wins over Rutgers and Boise State before basically hiding underground.
Once they had cleared the Boise hurdle, the Bulldogs indeed looked poised for a potential undefeated finish and BCS bid, but Fresno State didn't actually play all that well early on. The defense was average at best, and while the offense was fast, it wasn't as productive as it probably should have been given the opponents. Our impression of the offense was skewed by pace, and our impression of the defense was about to end up faulty as well.
When the nationally televised games were over, Fresno State kicked things up a bit.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Fresno State 30.5, Opponent 27.7 (plus-2.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 7 games): Fresno State 37.2, Opponent 24.5 (plus-12.7)
Until the San Jose State game, Fresno's defense had played somewhere between decent and great for nine straight games. The offense, meanwhile, had hit its cruising altitude, averaging at least 7.0 yards per play in four of five games. The Bulldogs averaged 9.6 per play against SJSU, but the defense just had no answers, allowing 736 yards and 62 points.
Again, that loss was statistical justice of sorts -- Fresno State wasn't good enough to play in a BCS bowl and got served some massive regression-to-the-mean just in the nick of time -- but it also wasn't indicative of the way the Bulldogs had played defense for most of the last two months.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.6%||17||Succ. Rt. +||110.2||29|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.0||72||Def. FP+||101.4||41|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.8||23||Redzone S&P+||109.7||30|
|Q1 Rk||24||1st Down Rk||14|
|Q2 Rk||35||2nd Down Rk||83|
|Q3 Rk||58||3rd Down Rk||73|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brian Burrell||6'4, 219||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||12||51||0||0||58.3%||0||0.0%||4.3|
|Myles Carr||6'1, 211||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Zack Greenlee||6'1, 197||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
3. Life without a Carr
Here's something else from those anti-social stats: Derek Carr was good, but he wasn't irreplaceable. The soon-to-be NFL Draft pick was absurdly prolific for Fresno State over the last three years; he completed two-thirds of his passes and threw for more than 12,700 yards from 2011-13, connecting on 113 touchdown passes with only 24 interceptions. Those are jarring numbers. Of course, he also threw more than 1,600 passes in that span -- it would take Jameis Winston more than four seasons to throw that many, and it would take Braxton Miller more than six. If you're throwing that many passes, you're going to pile up the yards.
Break Carr's numbers down into per-attempt chunks, however, and you find that while he was good, his production was a little more standard than it appeared. He averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, including (minimal) sacks. A good chunk of his passes were quick and easy. Fresno State was able to win 20 games in two years because he was also good at making tough passes at times and mostly avoiding crippling errors. But 7.5 yards per attempt is within replaceability range.
That's not to say that anybody can replace what Carr did, of course. If his replacements stink, his replacements stink. But if it turns out that Brian Burrell, Myles Carr, or Zack Greenlee (or a potential transfer) is competent and knows the offense, the yards will follow. Because Fresno State wants to pass. A lot.
|Josh Quezada||RB||5'11, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||155||807||6||5.2||4.4||40.0%|
|Marteze Waller||RB||5'11, 214||Jr.||NR||124||646||7||5.2||4.5||40.3%|
|Malique Micenheimer||RB||6'1, 232||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||31||148||2||4.8||7.2||32.3%|
|Darryl Cash||WR||5'10, 191||Sr.||NR||18||67||1||3.7||3.7||27.8%|
|Brian Burrell||QB||6'4, 219||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||5||10||1||2.0||3.0||40.0%|
|Myles Carr||QB||6'1, 211||So.||2 stars (5.3)||4||26||0||6.5||1.8||75.0%|
|Dontel James||RB||5'11, 210||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Kurt Scoby||RB||5'8, 176||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
4. Backs to burn
Carr also had one hell of a receiving corps at his disposal. In Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse, and Josh Harper, Carr had a trio of wideouts capable of carrying a large load and offering diverse sets of skills. Adams was relatively explosive (13.2 yards per catch) and incredibly reliable (75 percent catch rate). Burse was the recipient of a lot of those aforementioned short passes. And Harper was an in-betweener, capable of efficiency and occasional explosiveness.
They were all different shapes and sizes, too, but two of the three are now gone. The winner of the quarterback job will still have the steady, reliable Harper, but others will need to step into larger roles.
Not that there aren't candidates. Greg Watson and Justin Johnson are each former three-star recruits; so was Da'Mari Scott, who has been fighting the injury bug for most of his time in Fresno. Junior kick returner Dillon Scott moves back from the defensive side of the ball as well. There are options here, but there is uncertainty, as well.
Less uncertain: the backfield. Fresno State will still pass frequently, but the Bulldogs have a trio of interesting backs. Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller are basically the same player (efficiency backs with decent power and average explosiveness), and senior Malique Micenheimer is a home runs-and-strikeouts guy (high explosiveness, low efficiency). Throw in two young three-star prospects in Dontel James and Kurt Scoby, and offensive coordinator Dave Schramm has quite a few reasons to call a few more run plays in 2014.
|Josh Harper||WR||6'1, 184||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||112||79||1011||70.5%||17.7%||66.0%||9.0||97||9.0||120.3|
|Josh Quezada||RB||5'11, 214||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||58||51||290||87.9%||9.1%||61.2%||5.0||-244||5.3||34.5|
|Greg Watson||WR||5'10, 209||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||38||21||285||55.3%||6.0%||55.6%||7.5||10||7.8||33.9|
|Marteze Waller||RB||5'11, 214||Jr.||NR||33||24||187||72.7%||5.2%||53.6%||5.7||-87||6.0||22.3|
|Aaron Peck||WR||6'3, 211||Jr.||NR||23||14||157||60.9%||3.6%||72.2%||6.8||-17||6.8||18.7|
|Justin Johnson||WR||6'1, 202||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||8||65||72.7%||1.7%||60.0%||5.9||-26||7.0||7.7|
|Jerin McClendon||TE||6'8, 258||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||2||1||3||50.0%||0.3%||N/A||1.5||-11||0.0||0.4|
|Da'Mari Scott||WR||6'0, 199||So.||3 stars (5.6)||2||2||19||100.0%||0.3%||N/A||9.5||-1||0.0||2.3|
|Riley Barnes||TE||6'3, 261||Sr.||NR|
|Darryl Cash||WR||5'10, 191||Sr.||NR|
|Devonn Brown||WR||5'8, 143||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Dillon Root||WR||6'0, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Delvon Hardaway||WR||6'1, 181||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Darrell Fuery||WR||6'0, 186||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Carl Coleman||WR||5'11, 170||RSFr.||NR|
|Austin Wentworth||LT||43||1st All-MWC|
|Cody Wichmann||RG||6'6, 311||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||36|
|Justin Northern||RT||6'5, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13|
|Alex Fifita||LT||6'4, 307||Jr.||NR||11|
|Bo Bonnheim||C||6'2, 295||Jr.||NR||7|
|Josh Tremblay||RT||6'5, 284||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0|
|Sean Rubalcava||LG||6'4, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Allen Brown||RG||6'3, 301||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|David Patterson||LG||6'4, 289||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Elijah Cox||RG||6'4, 297||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Bobby Johnson||OL||6'5, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jacob Hicks||OL||6'5, 310||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
5. A great line loses a couple of pieces
Carr was in a quarterback-friendly system and had perhaps the best mid-major receiving corps in the country catching his passes. He was in the perfect position to succeed, especially when you throw in the fact that his line was quite good.
The quick passing helped to keep the sack rates low, but Fresno's run-blocking stats tell you this was a good line regardless of the system. Despite solid size and big running backs, Fresno State stunk in short-yardage situations last year, but while that does matter, their ability to prevent negative plays and open up a solid number of opportunities mattered more.
Losing all-conference tackle Austin Wentworth hurts, but FS does still bring back four players with starting experience (67 career starts), including three-year starting guard Cody Wichmann. The sacks will always be low in this system, and the run blocking should still be sound.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.6%||35||Succ. Rt. +||101.5||49|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.5||63||Off. FP+||97.5||88|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||69||Redzone S&P+||84.6||106|
|Q1 Rk||32||1st Down Rk||70|
|Q2 Rk||56||2nd Down Rk||69|
|Q3 Rk||86||3rd Down Rk||67|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tyeler Davison||DE||6'2, 304||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||34.0||4.4%||7.5||2.0||0||2||0||0|
|Todd Hunt||DE||6'3, 261||Jr.||NR||13||19.0||2.5%||5.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Maurice Poyadue||NG||6'3, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ioane Sagapolu||NG||6'0, 301||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Nathan Madsen||DE||6'4, 260||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Claudell Louis||DE||6'4, 286||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Ryan Steele||NG||6'0, 301||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Nathan Madsen||DE||6'4, 260||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Sam Akoteu||DT||6'2, 290||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Kyle Hendrickson||DE||6'4, 250||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. Thin but feisty
Fresno State basically played four defensive linemen in its 3-4 system in 2013. Either the Bulldogs had awful depth or, because the top four never got injured (each played all 13 games), they never had to tap into the second string.
They are hoping for the latter, because two of last year's four are gone. DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth have done some shuffling this year; big Tyeler Davison moves to defensive end (at least in certain situations), which means potential opportunity for nose guards like Maurice Poyadue and Ioane Sagapolu. There are certainly plenty of candidates here, but almost none of them actually played in 2013.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Karl Mickelsen||ILB||6'0, 229||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||13||79.5||10.3%||2.5||0.0||0||3||1||0|
|Kyrie Wilson||ILB||6'2, 228||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||72.0||9.3%||5.0||3.5||0||5||1||0|
|Ejiro Ederaine||OLB||6'3, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||52.0||6.7%||16.5||10.0||0||2||1||1|
|Donavon Lewis||OLB||6'2, 239||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||38.0||4.9%||9.0||5.0||1||5||0||0|
|Brandon Hughes||OLB||6'3, 212||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||12.0||1.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jeff Camilli||ILB||6'3, 264||So.||2 stars (5.4)||7||4.0||0.5%||2.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|T.J. Thomas||ILB||6'0, 204||So.||NR||13||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jaamal Rose||OLB||6'2, 222||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Stephen Van Hook||OLB||6'1, 230||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Robert Stanley||OLB||6'3, 224||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Michael Lazarus||ILB||6'2, 225||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Xavier Ulutu||ILB||6'1, 240||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Justin Green||OLB||6'4, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive
Even considering the potential lack of depth up front, Fresno State's front seven still performed exactly as Tim DeRuyter's aggressive front seven is supposed to. Fresno State was fourth in the country with 108 tackles for loss. (The Bulldogs were also 24th in passes defensed.) They attacked from every direction, and the stats bear that out -- four linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs had at least four tackles for loss last fall.
And the linebacking corps was as deep as the line was thin. The inside linebackers batted passes and rounded up ball-carriers. The outside linebackers rushed the passer with abandon. And the second string did quite a bit of damage as well.
The second string is getting rebuilt in 2014, but that's tolerable when your first string returns intact. Fresno State's top four combined for 33 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks, and 16 passes defensed; all four return. That's very good news for those who enjoy aggressive defense.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derron Smith||FS||5'11, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||13||73.5||9.5%||8||4||7||6||0||0|
|Charles Washington||SS||5'11, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||62.5||8.1%||8||2||1||2||1||0|
|Curtis Riley||CB||6'0, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||48.0||6.2%||5.5||0||1||7||1||0|
|Jamal Ellis||CB||5'11, 170||So.||NR||11||19.5||2.5%||1||0||0||3||0||0|
|Dalen Jones||SS||6'1, 193||So.||3 stars (5.6)||11||13.5||1.8%||2||1||1||1||1||0|
|Shannon Edwards||FS||5'11, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||10.0||1.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Kyrian Obidiegwu||DB||5'11, 204||Jr.||NR||9||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rodney Mathews||S||6'0, 208||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Justin Holmes||S||6'2, 173||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Bryan Harper (Arizona)||CB||6'0, 170||So.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Corey Ferguson||DB||5'10, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Stratton Brown||DB||6'1, 183||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Malcolm Washington||DB||6'2, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Big plays, one way or another
Aside from the Rutgers game (in which running back Paul James erupted for 182 yards against the Bulldogs), when Fresno State's defense struggled in 2013, it was usually because of big plays in the passing game. It usually happened on early downs, when the defense was concentrated near the line of scrimmage. On passing downs, Fresno State would usually bitz, but form a rather conservative umbrella with its secondary. But in both of Fresno's losses, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating over 200.0.
It's perhaps a little bit disconcerting, then, that Fresno State now has to replace two of its top three cornerbacks. With so much returning at linebacker, Fresno's 2013 strength might get even stronger; but despite the return of both starting safeties, the main weakness might get weaker unless somebody like Arizona transfer Bryan Harper or sophomore Jamal Ellis is able to make pretty rapid improvement.
|Garrett Swanson||6'0, 213||Jr.||52||43.2||3||26||14||76.9%|
|Colin McGuire||5'10, 183||So.||89||54.5||15||3||16.9%|
|Garrett Swanson||6'0, 213||Jr.||8||64.5||6||0||75.0%|
|Colin McGuire||5'10, 183||So.||71-74||8-11||72.7%||3-5||60.0%|
|Dillon Root||KR||6'0, 190||Jr.||28||21.5||0|
|Da'Mari Scott||KR||6'0, 199||So.||20||19.6||0|
|Special Teams F/+||105|
|Field Goal Efficiency||91|
|Punt Return Efficiency||86|
|Kick Return Efficiency||124|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||52|
9. Swanson's a keeper
Garrett Swanson was a fair catches machine in 2013; half of his punts were high enough to be fair-caught, but he still averaged more than 43 yards per punt. He is a lovely field position weapon.
Now ... about that return game. Kick returns were distinctly average, and punt returns ace Isaiah Burse is gone. Having a great punter is a major asset, but only if you're not giving away his gains with your own returns.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|26-Sep||at New Mexico||116|
|3-Oct||San Diego State||83|
|17-Oct||at Boise State||18|
|8-Nov||San Jose State||82|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-1.2% (61)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||71|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||1 / -0.7|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (5, 8)|
10. Survive the first three weeks
Fresno State will be breaking in a new quarterback, a relatively new receiving corps, and a couple of new pieces on defense just in time to face a brutal beginning to the season. Trips to USC and Utah, with a visit from Nebraska, are an impressive way to start; even a top-50 team could start 1-2 or 0-3.
But unless things really fall apart at the beginning, or if there isn't a decent quarterback on the roster, Fresno State will likely be favored in eight of its last nine games. Struggle early, then roll late: it's the opposite of Fresno State's 2013 season, but it's the most likely scenario here.
Tim DeRuyter is building a rather entertaining squad in Fresno. He is bringing in three-star recruits, and he has installed both a high-paced offense and a high-octane defense. Fresno State tries to go big at all times, even while making small throws, and that is pretty fun even when it doesn't work. But it's working quite a bit, too, and it should once again in 2014, Carr or no Carr.