Football: Offensive line used to quiet success

The Fresno State offensive line protects quarterback Derek Carr in the pocket in the Bulldogs’ 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers on Aug. 29 at Bulldog Stadium.

The Fresno State offensive line protects quarterback Derek Carr in the pocket in the Bulldogs’ 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers on Aug. 29 at Bulldog Stadium. Roe Borunda / The Collegian

Fresno State offensive lineman Cody Wichmann, like the season the Bulldogs’ offensive front is having, speaks quietly – quiet in a good way.

The No. 17 Bulldogs are on par to break several school records on offense. Quarterback Derek Carr is three touchdown passes away from shattering Paul Pinegar’s all-time mark of 84, anchoring an offense ranked fourth in the nation in passing yards (374 per game). The attention is fixated on Carr and his receivers, who throw and catch the big passes.

Just how Wichmann prefers it.

“Usually when the offensive line is recognized, it’s for bad things,” said Wichmann, a junior and one of four returning starters on the offensive line from last season.

“So being unrecognized is primarily a good thing. We haven’t let up many sacks, and it needs to remain that way. But in my opinion, staying out of the newspapers and all that is a good thing. Offensive line is a very unglorified position. That’s something we understand.”

The Bulldogs’ offensive front has allowed three sacks in five games and 265 pass attempts. The ratio: .60 sacks per game in a season in which opposing defenses have attempted to key in on Fresno State’s passing game.

The pass protection has catalyzed Fresno State’s scoring surge, keeping Carr up on his feet as he continues to anchor a high-speed passing attack, one opposing defenses have had trouble slowing down despite the added attention.

Against UNLV Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State (5-0, 2-0 MWC) is expected to face a defensive front coach Tim DeRuyter characterized as “athletic” with “good length.”

UNLV (4-2, 2-0) and Fresno State are tied for first place in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. The Rebels lead the conference in pass defense.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, whose up-tempo spread offense ranks fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring (47.4 points per game).

It was uncertain this offseason as to how the starting offensive line would shape up. Wichmann, the Bulldogs’ starting right guard, began his Fresno State career at right tackle. And left tackle Austin Wentworth has played both guard positions back when Fresno State ran a pro-style offense under former coach Pat Hill.

The final starting lineup, though – Wentworth at left tackle, sophomore Alex Fifita at left guard, senior Lars Bramer at center, Wichmann at right guard and sophomore Justin Northern at right tackle – has remained the same this season. Northern, who redshirted last season, was the only lineman to have not had a starting role on the offense.

The offensive line, Schramm said, “sets the tempo for us in all of the different tempos that we run.” The offensive line had to condition – acclimate to the speed of a no-huddle offense – and get leaner in transitioning to the spread two offseasons ago. It was one of the early concerns in during the team’s transition to the spread.

Doesn’t seem to be the case any longer: the Bulldogs average 89.4 plays per game on offense, third in the nation behind Cal (91.7) and Texas Tech (89.8), both of which operate under the air raid offense.

“If you’re going to be an offensive lineman here,” Schramm said, “that’s what you have to do. You have to be in great shape, and you have to run to the football and you have to be ready to go.”

The run game – which, like the offensive line rotation, was one of the question marks heading into the season – has gained traction with Marteze Waller and Josh Quezada handling it by committee. Fresno State’s averaged 257 yards on the ground in its past two games against Idaho and Hawaii, an improvement that should help neutralize a Rebels defense that Schramm said has a tendency to blitz on third down.

“We’re starting to run the football better,” Schramm said. “We’re not allowing too many sacks. Things are going pretty good out there.”

When a Fresno State receiver scores, the linemen scurry to the end zone to lift him up, like a trophy being hoisted. High-fives are exchanged and players gather en masse before heading back to the sideline. Most linemen stay on the field for the point-after attempt.

In the Bulldogs’ nationally televised games against Rutgers and Boise State, the camera zoomed in on the receivers when they’re being lifted in midair, capturing their facial expressions. After the replay of the touchdown, the cameras followed the skill players jogging back to the sideline before showing the point-after kick, usually zoomed out in aerial view.

Wichmann and linemen do the lifting and the showcasing, their efforts vicariously celebrated through the actions of their skill-position counterparts.

When asked about his linemen, Carr usually says that he loves them, and that they make his job easier. It’s a mutual feeling.

“We love those guys,” Wichmann said of Carr and the receivers and running backs.

“If they score, we’re going to lift those guys up. They respect us for making it happen. It starts with the o-line. If we protect Derek, those guys are going to make huge plays, which is what we’ve done this year.”

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