Fresno St’s game against UConn last Saturday went from a tight, defensive battle to a blowout in the span of two single-play touchdown drives at the end of the first half, turning the rest of the game into garbage time. Fortunately I had charted all six of the Bulldogs’ 2020 games, and most of their per-play success rates in each aspect of the game prior to garbage time were basically the same as last year. I reviewed Fresno St’s roster with Caleb a couple of weeks ago, and while we saw a couple of personnel changes this is essentially the same team.
Head coach DeBoer, who was the former OC at Fresno St in 2017-18 under Jeff Tedford before taking a year as OC at Indiana in 2019, runs a modern and fairly open offense - mostly out of the shotgun in 11-personnel, with a horizontally oriented passing game and about a 2:1 preference for throwing over rushing. I see a number of similarities to Tedford’s offenses when he was at Cal, and DeBoer retained much of the offensive coaching staff when he took over last year.
The Bulldogs returned every one of their playmakers from 2020, and despite the run-pass balance being tilted towards the pass, the stars of the show are clearly the running backs: starter #20 RB Rivers, who now holds the Fresno St career touchdown record, and equally effective backup #7 RB Mims. In fact, I see so little falloff when Mims is in that I think it would be more optimal to have them at 50/50 touches instead of 4:1.
The offensive line is better on my tally sheet at run-blocking than pass-blocking, but still, the backs are called on a lot to break tackles and make successful plays on their own, and they’re excellent at it. The rushing success rate last Saturday was 55.6%, virtually the same as last year’s 54.2%, given the down & distance.
Fresno St’s rushing attack has a higher success rate at inside zone and off-tackle running than they do on outside and stretch runs. I think that’s because their strengths are in the backs’ ability to cut, find holes, and break tackles, rather than pulls and lateral movement by the line or perimeter blocking. Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - This probably should have been a tackle for loss — the pitch is a little slow, and I think the inside receiver should be blocking the safety and leaving the backer to be outrun by the play — but Mims is really effective at redirecting his lateral momentum while getting forward and bouncing off tackles.
- :22 - The DT just blows this run up - the #58 LG Adkins is getting overwhelmed trying to do two things at once and the center can’t help. Adkins was replaced in the opener by a backup from last year, #51 LG Vavao, something Caleb and I speculated would happen last month.
- :36 - Again I think the WR is blocking the wrong guy here, and the TE gets hung up on his chip block and doesn’t get to the corner in time. Tight ends are somewhat vestigial in this offense - despite having six on scholarship (four of whom are Jucos) they don’t really catch passes but they aren’t instrumental in the run game either.
- :48 - I like the crisp pulls here by returning starter #59 C Smith and the new #54 RG Schmidt (who played some backup center last year and Caleb and I liked a little more), but the TE isn’t effectively sealing his man and #72 LT Bull (who I think is their best lineman) misses his second-level block. But Rivers is just an exceptional back and rescues the play anyway.
Washington transfer #9 QB Haener returns, whose 153.4 passer rating was 19th in the country last year. It’s difficult to resist comparisons between Haener and former Washington starter Jake Browning - they’re both sharp and diagnose the play well, but prefer underneath throws and dumpoffs rather than testing their arms deep, and are pretty eager and effective scramblers. I find Haener’s throwing motion to be pretty peculiar, though he’s still very accurate, and Caleb and I talked about how he’s maybe a better passer when he’s on the hoof than in the pocket trying to wind up. Here are a few plays to illustrate his tendencies:
- :00 - I’ve got several 3rd & long plays on my tally sheet just like this - buying additional time in the pocket, then rolling out and making a pretty impressive throw on the run to a receiver on the scramble drill. Even though Haener’s tendency is to tuck the ball on 1st & 2nd downs, on 3rd he’s disciplined enough to keep his eyes downfield and make passes. Great catch by #5 WR Cropper, their leading receiver
- :23 - Good blitz recognition here, finding Mims in the void created by the outside blitz. Again this probably should have been a TFL — UConn’s defense played pretty well for most of the first half and had clearly been studying film, I think they bated him into this throw and had the DB come down for it — but Mims is excellent as a receiver out of the backfield.
- :43 - The other Washington transfer is #8 WR T. Jones, by far the biggest in Fresno St’s WR corps. He’s on the outside here and did have one catch for a touchdown on Saturday, but that was his only target all day. Either the chemistry isn’t there yet or Haener’s talents just don’t lie in taking advantage of vertical passing plays that Jones and the other outside receivers create - over the last seven games I’ve seen Haener repeatedly take the quick underneath throw for a high completion percentage but low yardage rather than setting up in the pocket and trying it deep against one-on-one coverage.
The passing game is clearly focused on efficiency, and it demands that defenses simply stay disciplined and force them to go on long drives. It’s difficult to disrupt them marching down the field with it, requiring either very quick pressure or blanketing coverage. But on the other hand, it’s rare to see big plays outside of coverage busts or egregiously missed tackles, which means eventually they do stall out - called passing plays were only 48.7% efficient last year, and just 40% prior to garbage time against UConn. Some examples:
- :00 - Total pocket collapse inside of two seconds, something that I saw fairly often (Fresno St had a sack, scramble, or throwaway on 34.6% of dropbacks last year). Without a reliable tight end dumpoff option, this is the sweet spot for generating a sack - pressure with four, before the receivers’ routes have developed against seven in coverage, and with the running back not yet turned on the wheel.
- :22 - Blitzing is fairly effective against this protection, and frequent blitzing on standard downs was strongly correlated with a good defensive performance against Fresno St last year on my tally sheet. Part of the reason for that is that Haener is prone to off-platform throws under pressure like this one, without properly evaluating the defense.
- :37 - These types of plays are what Fresno St tries to patiently set up for - a busted coverage that Haener is bright enough to identify as soon as the DB bites on Rivers out of the backfield, and he delivers an in-stride pass.
When DeBoer returned from Indiana, he brought new DC Inge with him, who was the Hoosiers’ longtime linebackers coach. Their defensive system, and the one Fresno St switched to from the 3-4 that previous coaches Tim DeRuyter and Jeff Tedford were running, is a 4-2-5 with a hybrid LB/S called the “Husky” position. It didn’t have a great debut in 2020, but it’s difficult to tease out how much of that is the typical disruption in the first year for a structural change to the front, how much is covid-restricted practices and conditioning, and how much is enduring personnel issues.
The biggest trouble last year was against the run, where they were underwater - they only stopped 48.4% of opponents’ designed rushes from staying ahead of the sticks. I think beyond the problems that are unique to 2020, there were some personnel issues here: they didn’t have enough defensive tackles to stop runs up the middle, they were experimenting with different linebacker and Husky configurations in almost every game, and I think one of the safeties responsible for run-stopping was their least effective defensive player.
In their opener against UConn, it looked like the Bulldogs have made strides in fixing those issues, because their per-play rush defense success shot up to 75%. Obviously the quality of their opponent figures into that a lot, but I was seeing personnel improvements in all the above mentioned areas in that they:
- got a starter back from opting out in #55 DT Payne and added another through the portal, #0 DT Bennett from Oregon St;
- converted #3 DE Mosby from linebacker after he recovered fully from surgery (he was #15 before);
- settled into a good starting group of backers with the addition of #58 LB Maeva from Boise St by way of FIU; and
- put a former 4-star UCLA transfer, #2 DB Gates, in for that problematic safety
Schematically, however, I think this defense simply can’t contain a running quarterback, because of the way the linebacker and Husky structure fails to account for the QB by frequently playing cover-2 man with the Husky pulling the balance of the defense to one side. It was a recurring problem all season long in 2020 - they stopped runs by RBs at about a 55% rate, but runs by QBs at only a 24% rate, which is the biggest positional split I’ve ever seen. Even with the personnel improvements I think they’ve made in 2021, all three times UConn’s QB ran prior to garbage time Fresno St gave up substantial yardage (5, 5, and 8 yds). Some examples of the Bulldogs’ rush defense to illustrate:
- :00 - This was the biggest problem in the beginning of last year, here in the opener they just don’t have the beef to stop short-yardage runs, even when the opponent signals it by going to the wildcat. The DT is being effectively combo’d, the linebackers and safeties in the box are too slight to take on offensive linemen, and there’s even a receiver who’s handling a defensive end.
- :07 - The DE here biting inside makes him easy to seal by the pulling lineman and the slicing TE takes care of the backer. The safety is in conflict because the Husky is on the other side of the field - he has no help to deal with the possibility of that TE going out for an RPO pass or the QB keeping it. He stays outside so the QB keeps inside of him to empty grass, with the Husky having to make a very long run across the field to knock him out of bounds.
- :27 - This play should look familiar from last year to Oregon fans - a backside read with two TEs slicing under the formation. The safety and Husky just aren’t big enough to survive those TE blocks, even though the offense isn’t really hitting them cleanly, giving the QB more than enough room to slip through them.
- :47 - In 2021’s opener, I saw a lot cleaner play from the Bulldogs’ rush defense, particularly the line - #99 DE Perales, their best of at least five playable ends, gets inside the TE to blow up the play, while Payne is leaning into the running lane and the returning safety #32 DB Williams (brother of Oregon’s Bennett) knifes in to help with the tackle.
Pass defense was much more effective last year, but naturally that left less room for improvement in the opener against UConn. I charted a 55.1% per-play effectiveness last season against the pass, which jumped to 65.2% last Saturday - although even more than the rush defense, I think poor QB arm talent from UConn played a big factor in that.
I think the ends and linebackers when blitzing are fairly effective at generating pressure, and what problems I was seeing last year were again structural at the second level, as well as some personnel problems in the secondary. I like one of their returning corners, #4 CB Free, who I hardly saw at all on my screen last year (always a good sign for a corner), and I think Williams is a pretty effective safety. However, I think the former walk-on corner on the other side, #38 CB Lux, presented more vulnerabilities. And while it’s a good sign of flexibility that the staff has replaced the really problematic safety from last year with Gates (and on top of that, a new player who’s a true sophomore, at second-string), I have been writing for years now about how Gates was completely unplayable at UCLA.
So while I think there is some incremental improvement in the pass defense from getting deeper on the line, a really athletic new backer in Maeva, and better play from true sophomore starter #13 H Houston, I think structural and secondary issues in pass defense are going to continue. Some examples to illustrate:
- :00 - The classic problem in cover-2 man is compounded by an imbalanced nickel defense. The entire structure is pulled to the field with trips to that side and the running back cutting underneath to pull the backer on him. The corner is pulled off by the Z and it’s nothing but green grass to the endzone. The last chance to stop the QB is the boundary safety, and I do think they’ll get better play out of that position in 2021, but even if he hadn’t bit, the damage is already done by the rest of the structure.
- :28 - The nice high angle on the replay is why I selected this clip, to show the structure of the defense and how the Husky’s box responsibilities differentiate him from other nickels - and in this case, leaves Lux one-on-one after the QB pulls the ball from the back to make the throw. Tackling issues like this from all the DBs weren’t uncommon last year, and I saw a few last Saturday as well prior to garbage time.
- :46 - Houston eventually became the starter at Husky last year as a true freshman, but he’s grown over the offseason and really engaged that blocker well. Maeva’s athleticism is simply an upgrade over the other returning backers; Oregon fans may remember him from the 2017 Las Vegas bowl.
- 1:08 - A holding penalty and a badly inaccurate pass makes this play a win for the defense, but certainly not for Gates who holds up on what he thinks is a slant route then gets broken when it turns into a sluggo.