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Utah Football Week 3 Opponent Preview: Fresno State Defense

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We breakdown the Fresno State defense before the showdown with Utah on Saturday in Bulldog Stadium

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, one would think that Utah's offense should have no issue with the Fresno State defense this Saturday. The Bulldogs were in Oxford, Miss. facing the Ole Miss Rebels last Saturday. The Bulldogs defense provided little resistance for the Rebels offense that gained 607 yards and scored 73 points. While those numbers look awful, it is likely not what Utah can expect from Fresno State's defense whoever. First, the Bulldogs had to travel across the country and play on the road, where Utah will have to face them in Fresno, Calif. at Bulldog Stadium.

Tim DeRuyter took over as the Bulldogs head coach in 2012. He brought a solid defensive resume to the head coaching position. He was the defensive coordinator at Nevada, Air Force, and Texas A&M before taking the head job in Fresno. His 3-4 scheme turned low ranked defenses at Air Force and Texas A&M into some of the top defense teams in the country. Fresno State loves to bring pressure from all over, including the secondary. The Bulldogs already have six sacks so far this season, which ranks them tied for No. 22 in the nation.

Defensive coordinator Nick Toth was the special teams coordinator and coached outside linebackers at Texas A&M prior to coaching with the Bulldogs. When he first arrived at Fresno State, he transformed the Bulldogs defense into a top 25 unit. As evidence last week, and their games with Utah and Nebraska last season, their ranking has dipped a little since the strong start.

Fresno State lost quite a bit of talent off of the 2014 defense that ranked No. 111 in the nation in total defense. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and safety Derron Smith both heard their names called during the 2015 NFL Draft. They also lost their leading tackler from 2014 in linebacker Karl Mickelsen (who had 96 total tackles last season). The Bulldogs struggled to stop both the pass (No. 99 in the nation last year) and the run (No. 100 in the nation last year). It is too early in this season to determine if the Bulldogs have improved on the defensive side of the ball, but the 8.43 yards per play they surrendered to Ole Miss does not bode well for showing defensive improvement.

One defensive bright spot for the Bulldogs last week was the pick-6 by senior free safety Shannon Edwards. Edwards intercepted the Ole Miss backup quarterback Ryan Buchanan's pass and raced 56 yards for the first points for the Bulldogs.  He also added eight tackles in the game to his six tackles he got in the opening game versus Abilene Christian. With 14 tackles so far this season, he is the leading tackler for the Bulldogs.

Against Ole Miss, outside linebacker sophomore Justin Green had a tackle for a loss and forced a fumble for the Bulldogs. Cornerback Jamal Ellis's four pass breakups has him tied for third in the Mountain West. Ellis is second on the team with 12 tackles.

Senior defensive end Claudell Louis leads the team in sacks with two on the young season. Sophomore Nathan Madsen (6-4, 290) occupies the nose guard position, with Senior Todd Hunt at the other defensive end position. Senior Ejiro Ederaine and junior Brandon Hughes are the outside linebackers, with senior Kyrie Wilson and junior Jeff Camilli in the middle linebacker spots. Wilson is the leading returner for Fresno State in tackles, after recording 90 total tackles last season. While his numbers were down in 2014 (with only 2.0 sacks and a decent 12.5 tackles for loss), Ederaine is a player the Utes need to keep track of, as he recorded 10.0 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2013. The strong safety is junior Dalen Jones, and the corner opposite Ellis is senior Charles Washington.

The Bulldogs will get a much larger dose of Utah running back Devontae Booker than they did last season. Booker was not yet named the starter for Utah last year when they played Fresno State. He made the most of his limited carries though, picking up 67 yards on only 10 carries. The other great running back the Bulldogs saw last year was Boise State's Jay Ajayi, who they faced twice. The Bulldogs did not have an answer for Ajayi in the first meeting in Boise. Ajayi rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries (5.27 ypc). In the Mountain West Championship Game, Fresno State slowed Ajayi down a bit better, limiting him to only 70 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries (3.18 ypc).

Bulldog Stadium can be a tough place to play. Fresno State did not lose a single home game in DeRuyter's first two seasons and have only lost two during his tenure (both last season, falling to Nebraska and Wyoming). Despite this, Fresno's defense was only very marginally better at home last season, surrendering 448.3 yards per game at home compared to 461.8 yards per game on the road. Fresno State's defense will likely be a saltier than they were against Ole Miss, but they will likely struggle to slow down Booker and the Utah offense.