Fresno State again controls destiny in Mountain West race, thanks to big play defense

Fresno State is back in control of its destiny in reaching the Mountain West Conference championship game after a 31-24 victory over UNLV on Saturday, the latest win in a season on a tightrope.

The victory was the Bulldogs’ fourth by one touchdown or less, and the third secured by the defense in the final seconds.

Before linebacker Levelle Bailey intercepted a pass with the Rebels at the Fresno State 8-yard line and 3 seconds to go, nickel Morice Norris Jr. had closed out a five-point win at Utah State with an interception on the Bulldogs’ side of the field with 55 seconds to play, and Bailey had iced a three-point victory over FCS Eastern Washington with an interception in double overtime.

That defense no doubt came up large for Fresno State (7-1, 3-1 in the MW) when it most needed it, at the end and before that forcing turnovers on back-to-back plays that definitely eased the degree of difficulty in a 24-point third quarter in which it held UNLV (6-2, 3-1) to 19 yards on eight plays.

But that may just obscure some big trouble brewing for the Bulldogs.

So, too, could the four touchdown passes thrown by quarterback Mikey Keene, who hit wideouts Tim Grear Jr., Mac Dalena and Erik Brooks and running back Malik Sherrod for scores.

The lack of a run game continues to be an issue for the Bulldogs’ offense and more and more opponents are playing to that, taking away deep passes and forcing Fresno State to string together play after play after play, working its way up the field.

In the third quarter against UNLV, Fresno State scored one touchdown on a 15-yard drive after safety Steven Comstock recovered a muffed punt, kicked a field goal after an interception at the Rebels 41 by safety Dean Clark and scored a touchdown on a 31-yard drive after Clark recovered a fumble that was forced when defensive end Isaiah Johnson knocked the ball free from running back Jai’Den Thomas.

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene throws against UNLV during their game at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene throws against UNLV during their game at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

There was a seven-play, 80-yard drive in there, but the Bulldogs bit off 60 yards when Keene scrambled away from pressure and UNLV lost wideout Jalen Moss running up the right sideline.

Could they have come up with all of those points if they had to go 80 or 70 or even 60 yards each time?

Fresno State and its run game

Fresno State rushed the ball 20 times for just 56 yards in the game, 2.8 per play.

An easy answer is difficult to get to — utilizing the quarterback in the run game.

The Bulldogs were not going to push Keene, who was coming off an ankle injury. But over the past three games the only time the Bulldogs have had success rushing the football has been in the second half at Utah State, when quarterback Logan Fife broke off runs of 5, 7, 10 and 12 yards. Fresno State averaged 1.9 yards on 20 rushing plays in the first half and 5.8 yards on 19 rushing plays in the second half.

”When Logan pulled it down and ran it up in there all of a sudden it opened up all kinds of stuff,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “You can get on the edge, you can run the option, you can do this and that, you can spread the field and do the zone read stuff and things. It’s a totally different game. Mikey wasn’t ready to do that tonight.

Fresno State recovers a fumble on a punt against UNLV in the second half of their game at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
Fresno State recovers a fumble on a punt against UNLV in the second half of their game at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

“We don’t ask (Keene) to do that a lot. But it needs to be part of what we do. You have to have the ability to get on the edge and not have people be so overly aggressive to get after your run game.”

The Bulldogs on Saturday utilized Sherrod more in the passing game — he was targeted 10 times, catching a career-high eight passes. Included was a 3-yard touchdown, but five of those plays went for 3 yards or less and only one resulted in a first down. The touchdown reception came on a fourth-and-2 play.

The impact: Fresno State against UNLV averaged four plays and 22 yards gained on its 14 series, and it has now punted away the football 14 times in its past three games after punting 15 times in its first five.

The Bulldogs, who led the conference in yards per play the past two seasons, are ranked only eighth through eight games. They rank 10th in the Mountain West in yards per rush (3.5) and 11th in yards per rush on first down (3.6) and in the red zone (1.5).

Fresno State, which went 40 drives without a three-and-out earlier in the season, had four in 12 series against UNLV that didn’t end with the end of a half.

At some point, without answers or help from the defense, that could hurt.

Boise State, which also is 3-1 in Mountain West play and comes to Fresno on Saturday for a showdown of teams that played for the conference title last season, has allowed 2.4 yards per rush over its past three games.

Starting with the second half of a victory over San Jose State, the Broncos’ defense has played 31 series, limited their opponents to less than 25 yards 20 times and have forced 18 punts and forced two turnovers on downs.

But the Bulldogs averaged just 1.7 yards on 35 rushing plays in winning the title at Boise State last season and there is that defense, which has made the going much easier at times. Fresno State has scored seven touchdowns on drives of less than 50 yards this season. The Bulldogs also are tied for third in the nation with 18 turnovers forced, while Boise State is tied for 110th with 15 turnovers lost.

By the numbers

16: First downs by the Bulldogs, a season low.

12: Interceptions this season by Fresno State, with Clark and Bailey picking off passes against the Rebels. The 12 interceptions match the Bulldogs’ total in 14 games last season and is the most since they had 19 in 2018.

41,031: Tickets out, the second sellout this season. With Boise State and New Mexico remaining on the home schedule, the Bulldogs could have four games with 40,000 or more tickets sold since 2001 when all six home games drew capacity crowds.

3: Days until the first College Football Playoff rankings are released.

0: Rushing plays of 10 or more yards by Fresno State. The Bulldogs’ longest run from scrimmage was 8 yards.

3: Games in a row Fresno State has been out-gained by its opponent. The Bulldogs had 312 yards and UNLV had 424. Utah State had 568 yards compared to 461 for the Bulldogs and Wyoming had 329 to the Bulldogs’ 324.

0: The Bulldogs’ defense pitched a shutout in the third quarter, allowing 19 yards on eight plays. Against FBS opponents this season Fresno State has allowed just 10 points coming out of halftime, tied for fourth in the nation.

1: Explosive rushing play of 20 or more yards by UNLV. The Rebels went into the game second in the Mountain West and tied for 13th in the nation with 15.

99: Receiving yards on five catches for the Bulldogs’ Jalen Moss, who just missed what would have been his third 100-yard game this season.