Now that we have explored the offense for the 2013 Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State Bulldogs (11-2), we dive into the other side of the ball and examine their defense. Unlike the offense in 2013, the defense struggled mightily throughout much of the season. This is surprising given head coach Tim DeRuyter is a defensive minded head coach and was a hot name for many offseason coaching vacancies. I think many people expected that the Fresno State defense would be markedly improved this season, from 431.8 yards (87th in FBS) and 30.8 points (82nd) per game last season. That was not the case against USC in week one, where Fresno State gave up over 700 yards of total offense and 52 points to the Trojans.
Fresno State runs a blitz-heavy 3-4 defense. Expect pressure to come from linebackers, safeties, basically everyone could come on a blitz, which was good for sixth in the nation for sacks last season. Six starters return for the Bulldog defense, including All America safety Derron Smith and second team All-Mountain West performers linebacker Ejiro Ederaine and defensive lineman Tyeler Davidson.
Smith is a versatile athlete who will play in deep coverage, play close to the line, and come on blitzes. With 14 career interceptions, he is the active career leader in FBS in interceptions, so throwing away from him is clearly prudent. (The matchup between Smith and Utah quarterback Travis Wilson will be one to watch to see if Wilson will challenge Smith.) Fresno State also returns two other players in the secondary, but this was a group that struggled last season. With two of the three starting cornerbacks gone, this group may regress from last season's poor numbers (283.2 yards per game, 119th in the nation). In Fresno State's two losses last season (San Jose State and USC), the opposing quarterback had a quarterback rating of over 200.0. Fresno State gave up an average of 422 passing yards in their two losses (including 577 yards to San Jose State) compared to 251 yards in wins. The Fresno State secondary struggled to stop the pass against USC, giving up 424 yards passing with no interceptions. USC quarterback Cody Kessler won Pac-12 offensive player of the week for his performance.
All four starting linebackers for Fresno State return from last season. Ederaine is the most talented of the group and excels at putting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the backfield. He had 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. Against USC, Ederaine recording two tackles for loss but no sacks.
Davidson is the only returning starter on the defensive line. The plan was for him to play more defensive end this season rather than nose tackle. Against USC though, Fresno State struggled to stop the Trojan rushing attack except for when Davidson was playing nose tackle. He played 13 snaps at nose tackle during the game, of which USC ran the ball on six of those plays for a total of 11 yards (USC gained 277 yards on the ground for the game on 64 carries). Defensive coordinator Nick Toth has stated that Davidson will be playing more at nose tackle, but he will continue to play defensive end as well. With the talent at linebacker and defensive lineman and heavy pressure scheme last season, Fresno State gave up 147.3 rushing yards per game (40th).
When teams had success throwing the ball on the Bulldogs last season, it was usually on earlier downs. To open up the passing game on first and second down, Utah will need to establish their running game. Causing Utah to be one dimensional was one of the keys for Fresno State to win according to MWC Connection editor Matt Kenerly. Forcing Fresno State to crowd the box to stop the run will open up the passing game for Wilson.
Utah struggled to convert third downs last season, generally because they were in third and long situations. It will be key to avoid third and long Saturday, because that allows Fresno State to bring pressure to force quick throws. The secondary runs a very conservative coverage to keep players in front of them, meaning it is unlikely Utah will convert many third and longs. The only good news for Utah is last week against USC, Fresno State did not perform well on third down, allowing the Trojans to convert 11 of 18 third downs.