It is a common adage in football: if you have multiple quarterbacks, you have none at all.
First, it was Brian Burrell, who drew the ire of the Red Wave for inconsistencies during the ‘Dogs’ first three games against power-conference opponents. Then it was Brandon Connette, the Duke transfer whose legs were playmakers more than his arm.
Next up: Zack Greenlee, the redshirt freshman from Stockton. With the Bulldogs paling in comparison with the title-winning 2013 campaign – when a certain someone led the country in passing yards – it was a breath of fresh air to see a new quarterback start.
After all, Greenlee’s only appearance (in garbage time against Southern Utah) saw him complete four of seven passes for 109 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown pass to Da’Mari Scott.
So, that makes him the strongest link, right? Surely, putting him against a conference opponent for a whole 60 minutes in a situation where Fresno State must win out will pay dividends for the Bulldogs, right?
Well, let’s throw three numbers out there: zero, 18 and 37.
No, those aren’t today’s lucky lotto numbers. It’s the number of passing yards Greenlee had in each of the quarters he played Saturday night against Wyoming. In three frames, he completed nearly half of his pass attempts (7-16) for 55 yards.
Burrell, by the way, made a cameo in the 45-17 beating: he was sacked in his first snap and then was intercepted in consecutive drives by Cowboys safety Tyran Finley. Despite that, he finished with better numbers than Greenlee: 7-13, 94 yards, one touchdown.
Connette did not take a snap in the game.
So, what was the matter? Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter explained Greenlee’s play after the game.
“From what it looked like to me, Zack wasn’t keeping his eyes down the field,” he said. “Young quarterbacks will do that. I thought he had some good runs, but he has to have confidence that he’s going to have protection and throw the ball where it needs to be.”
Simply put, a redshirt freshman was being a redshirt freshman.
And that is not a problem. It just means that with time comes experience. Greenlee wasn’t quite ready to take over a down-on-its-luck football team. Especially not when the season can still be salvaged.
In comparison: last year at Wyoming, the ‘Dogs used two quarterbacks. The senior threw for 360 yards and four scores. The other, a sophomore Burrell, completed only one pass for six yards. And Fresno State did the routing with a 48-10 victory.
Case in point: if you have three quarterbacks, you have none.
Defensive woes continue
Like Fresno State, a Wyoming freshman also had his first-career start on Saturday. But unlike the Bulldogs, this went in the Cowboys’ favor.
Running back Brian Hill rushed for 281 yards and caught for 106, totaling a conference-record 387 all-purpose yards. He is credited with two of Wyoming’s six touchdowns.
With 374 rushing yards allowed, the ‘Dogs’ run defense was a subject of criticism.
“[The Cowboys] were running the same plays that we practiced,” DeRuyter said. “When we look at the tape, we’ll find out [what happened].
“One, we had a bad call. We called a blitz, and they creased us to make a big play. The others were plays that we should have fit.”
Clearly, this wasn’t what the Bulldogs were expecting. After all, practice went smoothly, right?
“Coach did a good job having us take care of our bodies,” said safety Derron Smith. “He gave us a few days off during the bye week. We watched a lot of film on [Wyoming] and practiced well.
“That’s what’s really frustrating. I don’t understand why. Yeah, we still make mistakes, but that’s going to happen when you learn a new game plan.”
The postgame discussion was not sugarcoated: DeRuyter simply told his team that he was disappointed in its game play. And he was not the only one. The reported attendance was 32,164. By the end of the game, Bulldog Stadium looked as if only 164 people remained.
Filling in the shoes of a record-breaking quarterback has proven hard to do this year. But when there are problems both offensively and defensively, that’s when an uphill battle happens.
At this point, there are more questions than answers. Who will start at quarterback Saturday against San Jose State? Will there be adjustments to Fresno State’s defense?
The game tape will tell all. DeRuyter, Smith and senior wide receiver Josh Harper have said that the Bulldogs will look closely at what happened on the field. That will help determine what the Bulldogs do moving forward.
It’s going to be more than just picking a quarterback to start a game. It’s going to involve making Fresno State well-rounded and ensuring that all of its players are on the same page.
Or, as DeRuyter put it, “If we feel that guys are giving up, we’re going to say, ‘Next.’”
Either way, the Bulldogs are not eliminated from a chance at the championship. With San Diego State losing to Nevada, Fresno State is still in the hunt. The ‘Dogs are only one game behind first place in the West Division.
San Jose State comes to town Saturday. At 2-2, the Spartans have the second-place spot. Win, and Fresno State is still in the running. Lose, and it will have to wait until next year.
The Bulldogs started the season on a three-game losing skid. Now on another one, they will have to look past the losses and focus on keeping their playoff hopes alive.
“We have to finish strong,” Harper said. “That’s the only thing I can say. We can’t give up. We have to play for pride.”