Four takeaways from the Bulldogs’ trip to the Death Star

Fresno State defensive tackle Kevin Atkins sacks UNLV starting quarterback Max Gilliam on Nov. 7,2020, at Allegiant Stadium. (Anthony De Leon/The Collegian)

Fresno State’s trip to the Las Vegas strip turned out to be a fruitful one for the Bulldogs as they handed UNLV its third loss of the season, beating the Rebels 40-27.

Here are four takeaways from the ‘Dogs first road win of the 2020 season:

Mobile QBs are an issue for Fresno State’s defense

Fresno State’s defense has a major issue that I’m not sure they are going to be able to find a solution for this season — containing mobile quarterbacks.

UNLV quarterback Max Gilliam rushed 16 times for a total of 139 yards and a rushing touchdown. Gilliam’s 71-yard rushing touchdown was inexcusable, essentially going untouched on the run.

After what appeared to be a failed stunt move by defensive tackle Alex Dumais, defensive end Devon Bridges rushing too far up field and a release of UNLV running back Charles Williams taking linebacker Aaron Mosby to the left side of the field, a massive running lane opened up.

As Gilliam took off, he would rush past four Fresno State defenders before beating strong safety Deonte Perry, the last player in Gilliam’s way to the endzone.

By the 10-yard line, Perry would go for a shove but failed to stop Gilliam.

Fresno State’s inability to stop mobile quarterbacks was evident the first week of the season against Hawai’i. The Rainbow Warriors tore up the Bulldogs with run-pass options (RPOs) with Chevan Cordeiro choosing to run instead of airing the ball out, specifically in the second half.

Cordeiro racked up 116 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns as the Rainbow Warriors leading rusher. He found most of his rushing success in the second half running for 104 yards, compared to 12 in the first half.

To avoid more situations like Gilliam and Cordeiro in the second half of the season, Fresno State needs to find a way to contain mobile quarterbacks.

I think what Fresno State needs to do is add more pressure with blitz from the linebackers or the secondary to force a throw from opposing quarterbacks. Or leave one of its two linebackers as a spy where his sole job will be to make sure the quarterback stays within the pocket.

Looking ahead, Fresno State will have to deal with a few more mobile quarterbacks such as Utah State quarterback Jason Shelley, San Diego State quarterback Carson Baker and University of New Mexico quarterback Tevaka Tuioti.

Defensive brights spots

Although the defense has been a bit inconsistent, specifically in stopping third down conversions and the run game, there are a few bright spots.

Fresno State’s defensive line, when healthy, has been dominant on passing downs throughout the first three games of the season. The Bulldogs recorded six sacks against UNLV, which is the most single-game sacks by a Bulldog defense since facing UNLV back in October of 2015.

In 2019, the Bulldogs’ season high for sacks was 19, and they have nearly surpassed that total in the first three games. This year’s total currently sits at 14.

Defensive end Kwami Jones has been on a tear, with three sacks in one quarter against Hawai’i and another one last Saturday. His performances are a clear sign that not only he, but the other defensive linemen, Kevin Atkins and David Perales, are going to have fun getting to the quarterback.

The defense has also been a turnover machine throughout three games. Against UNLV, the ‘Dogs forced a season-high three turnovers, which is ironic because the last time the ‘Dogs did this, it was also against UNLV last season.

Fresno State has a total of five turnovers on the season with three being fumble recoveries. The Bulldogs have forced a turnover in every game so far.

And how about that turnover cape? 

Fresno State has found a creative way to keep the defense, and the whole team, excited and energized on the sidelines this season. The ‘Dogs have had to try to create their own juice to negate not having fans in the stands.

Is the Quarterback battle really over?

The question needs to be posed once again, because once again we saw backup quarterback Ben Wooldridge enter the game on Saturday.

But this time his stay was a lot longer. It wasn’t just for one drive, but for multiple series. 

The substitution came at the start of the second quarter, just like the game against Colorado State. 

With Wooldridge given more time, he not only produced one good drive but two touchdown-scoring drives in the first and second half. 

When Wooldridge was in at quarterback, the offense moved a bit faster downfield compared to when Jake Haener was in.

However, there is one note I want to make with these two capable quarterbacks.

Each quarterback has had to deal with bad offensive line play throughout the first three games of the season as the offensive line has allowed 14 sacks. 

There is a big difference how each quarterback handles that pressure.

When Haener is in at quarterback, at times he looks indecisive on his decision making and often escapes out of the pocket.

However, thanks to Haener’s athletic ability, escaping outside of the pocket can lead to him extending plays for some big gains. When he has time outside of the pocket, he can deliver, but he can’t rely on that every passing down.

By comparison, Wooldridge appears poised in the pocket and already has his pre-snap reads set to make up for the lack of pass protection. Woolridge’s release time from snap to making the throw is within three seconds. 

It’s in and out of his hands, and he’s making confident throws.

Both quarterbacks are doing their best to negate the issues on the offensive line, but Haener is having less luck, continuing to struggle with making smart throws, sustaining drives and preventing turnovers. 

After the game, head coach Kalen Deboer said with confidence that Haener is still the starting quarterback. But, he also said he feels good about having either one of them on the football field.

“What I want to see from these guys is better game-situation decisions,” DeBoer said. “I think both of them learned some things again [Saturday]. They are both ready guys that love the game and are learning. These are their first true meaningful snaps.”

I do not think this quarterback battle is over. 

Ronnie Rivers continues to make a statement in his senior campaign

If Allegiant Stadium is coined the Death Star, then Ronnie Rivers is Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” 

Rivers blew the roof off the place against the Rebels by scoring four offensive touchdowns with three coming on the ground. He rushed for 133 yard, averaging 7.0 yards per carry on 19 carries and also caught six passes for 99 yards, totaling 232 yards.

Rivers is making a serious case for himself to be a NFL capable running back in his senior campaign, scoring in 11 consecutive games. The record books continue to be shredded as he has now moved to second place in program history with 43 total touchdowns — one touchdown shy of tying the program leader Anthony Daigle. 

Rivers also moved to the No. 4 spot in program history with 34 career rushing touchdowns and moved from No.17 all-time to No.13 all-time in career all-purpose yards. 

His climb has been historic, even more so given the fact that this is his production within the first three games of a shortened season. Imagine what he could have done in a full season against non-conference opponents.

Mind you, Rivers is also extending plays when he has the ball in his hands and is making defenders miss tackles with his elusiveness. 

And man, isn’t it exciting to see Rivers make defenders miss?

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