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Opponent Defense Preview: Fresno State

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The Bulldogs are rebuilding and actually looking kind of good in the process.

Fresno State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Week three on the Huskies’ schedule is Fresno State, who just got done playing Alabama and — obviously — losing. Although the score was 41 - 10, resist the temptation to think these guys are pushovers. From what we’ve seen in the first two weeks of play, they’re not.

Personnel

If you’ve watched film of their game against Alabama, you’ll have noticed that the Fresno State scheme — at least in this small sample size — was defined by flexibility. They often played with four down linemen in a 4-3, or would do a 4-2-5 and/or 2-4-5 and would occasionally go to a 3-4. While every defense is constantly switching alignments and coverages, the frequency with which the Bulldogs altered their down linemen, linebackers, and secondary on the field stands out.

Their maturity definitely lies up front, where seniors Nathan Madsen, Malik Forrester, and Robert Stanley bring multi-year starting experience.

On the opposite end of things, the secondary lost three starters, with the main experience remaining coming from junior safety DeShawn Potts. Otherwise, there are a lot of younger, but not completely inexperienced guys along with some JuCo players who are adjusting to their increased role.

Regardless of the guys on the field, what happened against Bama was somewhat surprising.

Sure, the score doesn’t make Fresno State look good (41-10), but much of Alabama’s offensive yardage was all-or-nothing; the Bulldogs’ defense had way more moments of success against one of modern college football’s greatest dynasties than a reasonable person would expect. It was just maintaining that level of play for multiple downs and multiple drives that undid them. They forced Bama to punt multiple times in circumstances that gave the Fresno State offense quite favorable field position. Similarly, multiple times the Alabama offense had to settle for field goals deep in the red zone.

Honestly, that kind of sounds like a Mountain West version of how Washington’s defense played in the Peach Bowl against the Crimson Tide.

Minus a number of critical explosive plays allowed by Fresno State, either the Bulldogs’ defense wasn’t playing like they’re supposed to be a lower-tier G5 team, or the Alabama offense wasn’t playing like they’re supposed to be the biggest and best in the country. If I had to take a shot at which, I bet it’s not the latter. (Spoiler alert: Alabama is still good.)

The positives that stand out with this defense are similar in nature to what stands out about the Washington defense.

Their tackling is fundamentally sound and they appear to play with discipline in space. (My game notes includes having jot down “seriously, they can hit.”) Even against Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa — two quarterbacks renowned for their running abilities and elusiveness — the Fresno State pass rush created a decent amount of pressure and had a sack. Looking at the box score, Fresno State actually had one more tackle for loss against Alabama than vice versa. We should probably notice that.

The secondary, while it’s supposed to be a relative weakness, doesn’t get completely manhandled by a team like Bama despite what one would expect. Their safeties will happily take advantage of a quarterback locking on to his receivers and they had a couple near-interceptions against Hurts. Fresno State defensive backs also don’t look like they’ll shy away from running up and making tackles near the line of scrimmage.

For all their apparent strengths, though, their defense looks to succumb most to a talent deficit when facing disciplined blocking and a powerful run game. Against Alabama, that was most apparent in trying to bring down Bo Scarbrough (sorry if that brings up bad memories, Husky fans) and in the defensive struggle to get to ball-carriers once in space.

Bottom Line

While there’s only been a small sample size of Fresno State’s 2017 defensive performance, what they’ve done so far against a lower-tier opponent (66-0 beatdown of Incarnate Word) and a powerhouse in Alabama gives us a decent picture of what’s coming.

Alabama’s most effective offensive plays came with little flat routes or short passes that got their superior talent into space — a clear path for Washington to duplicate. However, the Bulldogs’ defense consists of solid open-field tacklers; what really challenges them is opposing ball-carriers getting into the second level of defense if said ball-carrier is coupled with disciplined downfield blocking from the opposing offense.

Similarly, an overpowering running back can be trouble for them once he gets into the linebackers and secondary. It’s not like Washington’s offense is defined by its power running game but I could see Lavon Coleman giving them some trouble with his size and angle-manipulation once in space.

What could be a problem for the Huskies is Jake Browning’s eyes plus the Fresno State defensive line if Washington’s O line doesn’t play better. While last week was a reminder that Browning’s feet can serve him well under pressure, his passing suffers quite a bit in those circumstances (duh).

Otherwise, last year Jake was great at manipulating safeties and linebackers with his eyes but has seemed to lock on to receivers a little bit this season. If he continues that against Fresno State, it won’t be with impunity. This probably comes down back to the offensive line; if they’re giving him time to set his feet and process his reads, the eyes should come naturally. If the threat of pressure is constant, however, there could be some ugly interceptions against the Bulldogs.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.