Reno, Nev. — To call coach Tim DeRuyter’s season goal of 30 turnovers lofty would be putting it lightly.
Setting sights on tripling a defense’s production from the nine meager turnovers it forced in a 4-9 season? The goal seemed ambitious at best, absurd at worst.
But believers the Bulldogs have made out of everyone.
En route to a 52-36 win over Nevada that preserved Fresno State’s first-place tie with San Diego State atop the Mountain West Conference standings, the Bulldogs’ four turnovers helped match DeRuyter’s mark of 30 for the season.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids that bought in to everything we’ve talked about on defense,” DeRuyter said. “It makes a big difference in ball games.”
The Bulldogs’ defense met its goal through a stout and overbearing front-seven that created pressures for quarterback Cody Fajardo and standout running back Stefphon Jefferson that were too momentum changing to allow the Wolf Pack a fair shot at rallying back.
Tyeler Davison recovered a fumble, forced by Donovan Lewis, and returned it for a touchdown a minute into the third quarter.
Travis Brown forced a fumble from Jefferson, recovered the ball and ran it 26 yards for another touchdown score four minutes later that put Fresno State up 38-21.
“We took the ball away a couple of times, and that was huge,” DeRuyter said. “When you get a couple of scores off of turnovers, it can flip the ball game in a hurry.”
The Bulldogs’ defense met its quota through a ball-hawking secondary that features quite possibly the nation’s most lethal safety tandem in Phillip Thomas and Derron Smith.
Smith picked off a pass from Fajardo for a 34-yard interception touchdown return before the half. Thomas, who leads the nation in interceptions, added to his lead by intercepting his eighth pass of the season in the third quarter shortly afterwards.
Thomas and Smith are first and second in the nation with eight and six interceptions, respectively.
“It feels great, man,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if that’s ever happened before, but it just shows the competitiveness of both of us.
“We keep each other going. When he (Derron) gets a pick, I say, ‘Man, I can’t let you catch up — I’ve got to get a pick.’ He’s always telling me that he’s going to catch up to me. We just feed off of it and it shows the two best ball-hawking safeties in the nation.”
In the span of one offseason, a team whose deficiencies on defense were widely apparent last season has indulged itself on a turnover binge like it was going out of style.
The team’s three defensive touchdowns tie the school record for most in a single game.
“Turnovers are a big deal in the win-loss column,” said Smith, who recorded his first interception touchdown return of his career on Saturday. “If you have a winning record, most of the time you’re getting good turnovers … that’s what we’ve been doing all year: getting turnovers.”
And the defense, a game changer in a third quarter that featured a 23-0 Fresno State scoring run, has reaffirmed that the Bulldogs have transformed into a second-half team.
Fresno State has outscored opponents eight out of 11 times in the second half this season for a combined 168-98.
After losing four years in a row to a conference opponent that heavily recruits in the Central Valley (with preps standouts such as El Diamante’s Jefferson and Clovis West’s Kendall Brock on Nevada’s roster), Fresno State pulled off one of its most significant wins of the season.
It primes the Bulldogs for the opportunity to capture a conference championship in their first year in the Mountain West.
“Every time you beat someone in your league that recruits where you’re at … a lot of times recruits want to go where the team’s winning,” DeRuyter said. “If we continue to lose to Nevada, they’re going to tell kids in the Central Valley why they would want to go to Fresno State.
“We’ve come out here, we’ve beaten them. (Recruits) are going to have a big-time decision: ‘Why would you ever want to leave the Valley if you can come play for the Bulldogs?'”
Fresno State enters its bye this week. On Nov. 24, the Bulldogs will play for at least a share of the Mountain West title when they host Air Force at Bulldog Stadium.
The Bulldogs last won a share of a conference championship in 1999 as members of the Western Athletic Conference.
“Being in this situation of (winning) a conference championship — with a new conference, new coaches, Senior Night — there’s going to be a lot of big things at stake,” running back Robbie Rouse said.