Fresno State safety Derron Smith (13) chases after Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo during the Bulldogs' Nov. 2 win over the Wolf Pack.

KEEPING CALM: Fresno State defense hopes to regain composure with MW title on line

Fresno State safety Derron Smith (13) chases after Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo during the Bulldogs' Nov. 2 win over the Wolf Pack.

Fresno State safety Derron Smith (13) chases after Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo during the Bulldogs’ Nov. 2 win over the Wolf Pack. Roe Borunda / The Collegian

It was painful to watch on film, where the intricacies were magnified, the mistakes were relived.

San Jose State quarterback David Fales never really felt the pressure. A defense that entered leading the Mountain West with 31 sacks (it still leads the conference in the category) didn’t register any last Friday in Fresno State’s 62-52 loss to San Jose State, its first and only defeat of the season.

The Spartans were seldom cornered into second- and third-and-long situations on offense, their receivers were seldom contained on big-gain routes – and the assignment-based execution that the Bulldogs defense relies on was manifesting itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Guys were trying to do too much, Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. They were swaying away from their assignments – and, in the end, when the shoot out entered the second half and Fales’ bullets were still flying, it became too much to overcome.

Fales was arguably the best quarterback Fresno State has and will face.

But tape doesn’t lie.

There are corrections to be made, Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said, and simple mechanics that need to be reinforced during championship week – “A long laundry list” of things primarily focused on the betterment of a secondary that felt the sting of a good quarterback, the same way other secondaries in the conference have felt unraveled when they faced quarterback Derek Carr and Fresno State’s offense.

“We have to do a much better job playing our technique, having eye discipline, knowing when to turn, being physical on receivers, making tackles in space…” DeRuyter said.

It goes deeper than that for a defense that’s preserved wins in overtime against Rutgers and San Diego State, on final plays against Boise State and Hawaii — and with a rash of injuries that have forced younger players to have their number called.

Cornerback L.J. Jones, who sustained a left knee injury in Fresno State’s Oct. 26 win over San Diego State, remains questionable. So is redshirt freshman Jamal Ellis, his replacement who suffered a lower leg injury, at San Jose State. Sophomore Dillon Root, who made the shift from offense to defense midseason remains in the mix after finishing a two-game suspension for violation of team policy, Toth said.

What’s the next step for a defense that, like many other defenses across the country has been burdened with injuries? When the question is not about finding sudden talent, but rather regaining the composure it lost?

“Agh, when we watched the film, we were greatly disappointed,” said Toth, shaking his head. “It was bad. We knew we weren’t playing well. I know I didn’t do a great job for that game.

“We played our worst game in the time we’ve been here the other day. It’s not us. … The good thing was our guys took it the right way.”

And if there was ever a right time for that to happen, it’s now with the No. 23 BCS-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 7-1 MW) hosting Utah State (8-4, 7-1) in the inaugural Mountain West championship game Saturday (7 p.m. and nationally broadcast on CBS).

It’s being billed as the quintessential Ali-Frazier type of match: the Mountain West’s most explosive offense versus the conference’s most stifling defense with the title on the line.

Fresno State is ranked first in the nation in passing yardage (410.3 yards per game) and fourth in scoring offense (47.3 points per game). The Aggies rank seventh in the country in points allowed (16.8) and held Fales and the Spartans to 12 points.

Saturday will be the first meeting between West Division champ Fresno State and Mountain Division victor Utah State as conference mates, and their first meeting since 2011.

What it might come down to, though, is how the Bulldogs respond on defense.

The Aggies, who lost senior dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a season-ending injury in early October, haven’t skipped a beat with freshman Darell Garretson entering the fray.

Utah State, which has similar offensive philosophies as Boise State in how it utilizes pre-snap shifts and motions, is known for its tendencies to make substitutions frequently to mix up its personnel groupings. It’s offensive line has helped keep the young Garretson, who is 5-1 as starter, from getting rattled.

For Fresno State, the pressure of going undefeated has been lifted; the hopes of busting the BCS and nabbing a big-time bowl in the final year before the college playoffs system takes effect have been dashed.

There really only lies one question: How does one prove the abomination was an aberration?

“Getting your eyes open like that, regardless of what the next week is, is never fun,” Toth said.

“Good teams have resolve and respond from that. The fact that I think we have good resolve to begin with and then you add that we’re playing for a championship this week, the sense of urgency’s definitely been great.”

That urgency remains, even in a year where the now-silent BCS bells rang this loud this late in the season for the Bulldogs.

“All the BCS talk was nice and fun,” said junior safety and defensive captain Derron Smith, “but like our coaches told us, our number one goal is still ahead of us in getting that Mountain West Championship.