Roll On: Previewing the Fresno State Defense

Excepting the mysterious Presbyterian Blue Hose, I’m fully anticipating that the Bulldogs will be the most difficult team to preview this year.  FSU is an entirely unfamiliar opponent with zero 2011 games available for insight and study.  What are we left with?  Trying to decide if 2010 results are meaningful and predictive of what the Fresno St. defense will be able to do at Candlestick point tomorrow.

Last year’s performance, both in terms of component stats and actual game results show a defense that is thoroughly average in almost every area, with a few exceptions that will be discussed below.  And to continue with that theme, the Bulldogs lose enough talent that it’s difficult to predict they’ll be improved, but bring enough talent back that it’s difficult to predict a sudden decent into oblivion.  What a shame – it’s much more fun to write about extremes.

Of course, as you read this it’s important to remember that Fresno St.’s schedule wasn’t exactly gangbusters last year.  FSU, as usual, scheduled three seemingly formidable BCS opponents – and unfortunately for Pat Hill and company, all three had mediocre-to-awful years.  And although Boise St. and Nevada (and to a lesser extent, Hawaii) were all solid WAC opponents, the rest of the conference was its usual morass of ugly.  So, digest the following stats with that in mind.

Personnel

Defensive Line: DE Matt Akers/Donavaughn Pritchett, DT Chase McEntee, DT Logan Harrell, DE Nat Harrison/Tristan Okpalaugo

Harrell is the only returning starter and easily the biggest star of the FSU defense.  Harrell had 10.5 sacks last year.  That’s a lot of sacks . . . for a defensive end.  To get that many playing at a defensive tackle is an indication of great strength, great explosiveness, or both.  He’s going to be a big challenge for Dominic Galas, Justin Cheadle and Brian Schwenke.  How that battle turns out may be the single biggest factor in Saturday’s game.

Note that both end spots are currently listed as platoons with players who haven’t had starting experience.  Pritchett is a four star recruit who received some starts at the end of last year, so I’d anticipate seeing his name in the lineup.  Still, if Harrell isn’t double teamed on every play I’ll be pretty surprised.

Linebackers: OLB Kyle Knox, MLB Jeremiah Toma, OLB Travis Brown

The strength of the defense, perhaps by a wide margin.  Knox and Brown are both returning starters and upperclassmen who racked up plenty of tackles last year.  They did lose their most productive defender in MLB Ben Jacobs, who has been replaced by sophomore Jeremiah Toma out of Grant.

Secondary: CB LJ Jones/Jermaine Thomas, S Derron Smith, S Phillip Thomas S Cristin Wilson, CB Isaiah Green

Thomas' broken leg is potentially devastating - he would have been easily the most talented and experienced member of the secondary.  Wilson is a walk-on that is five inches shorter, 30 pounds lighter and hasn't recorded a tackle yet as a Bulldog.  I don't know if he'll play the entire game, but Pat Hill said he'd start so that's what I'll go with. 

Without Phillip Thomas this is a very, very green unit.  On the bright side for FSU, a number of injuries last year allowed younger players to get some experience, meaning Isaiah isn’t as Green as his name suggests.  I’M SORRY I HAD TO DO IT!

I would guess that Jermaine Thomas is favored to start over Jones – he was a starter last year before injuries ended his season – but perhaps there are still lingering injury concerns.  He’ll likely see the field as a nickel back at the very least.

Against the Run

Fresno St. was 88th in the nation in yards per run, allowing opponents to gain an average of 4.58 yards each carry.  That’s nearly a full yard worse than Cal’s defense last year, and a pretty similar number to Cal’s 4.52 average yards per rush on offense.  Of course, we don’t have Shane Vereen any more.

Honestly, when I saw Fresno St.’s tackles-for-loss numbers, I was surprised to see such mediocre rush defense stats.  When you have two excellent defensive linemen and a veteran group of linebackers you anticipate better numbers.  It makes me suspect that FSU linemen are more quick than strong, able to move around linemen when rushing the passer but less likely to hold the point of attack on run plays.

It’s also possible that an over-aggressive scheme resulted in many tackles-for-loss and many big plays.  At cfbstats.com you can sort through lists of big plays allowed.  Under the category ‘Opponent long rushing plays,’ Fresno St was in the top 10 in number of rushing attempts of 20+, 30+, 40+, and 50+ yards allowed.  In total, the Bulldogs gave up 20 or more yards on a run 54 times last season – on average more than four per game.  For comparison’s sake, Cal only allowed 17.

Against the Pass

67th in the nation in yards per attempt and 72 in QB rating allowed doesn’t seem great, but it sounds much better when you consider that Fresno St. also racked up 37 sacks, good for almost 3 a game, 9th best in the country.  Of course, the graduation of Chris Carter takes away nearly a 3rd of that sack total and replacing his production from the end of the line will be a huge challenge.

As mentioned above, Green and Jones both got some starting action towards the end of the 2010 season, which included some rough, rough games against Boise St. and Northern Illinois that saw the opposing offense do essentially whatever they wanted.  Now, getting taken apart by the Broncos isn’t anything to be too ashamed of.  But were those games learning experiences or examples of Fresno’s ability to match up with the best teams on their schedule?

Miscellaneous

This is the section for a variety of categories that may or may not be statistically significant, but impact games nonetheless.  Is red zone defense a ‘skill,’ or just a collection of data points that, based on random chance, may or may not line up exactly with a defenses’ typical level of performance on the rest of the field?  I don’t know.  Similarly, fumble recoveries are generally seen as rather random events that may or may not bounce in your favor (unlike interceptions, which can be ‘forced’ with a strong pass rush and skilled players in the secondary).  This is the section for stuff like that.

3rd down defense

59th in the country with a 39.53 conversion percentage allowed to the opposition.

Red Zone defense

Touchdown percentage: 64%
Scoring percentage: 86%

Neither of those percentages are great.  Make of it what you will.

Turnovers

Last year, Fresno St. was awful at forcing turnovers.  Cal fans were dismayed that the Bears only forced 19 turnovers on the year, but Fresno St. was markedly worse with just 13, good for 115th in the nation – almost dead last.  That’s likely a combination of bad luck and iffy play from the secondary, which as I mentioned above sustained a few key injuries.  Is this likely to continue?  I have no idea.  It’s a point of emphasis for Pat Hill this season – the Bulldogs, after all, want to have the reputation of a team that will hit you so hard you’ll fumble the ball.

Conclusions

In essentially every quantifiable category the Fresno St. defense was thoroughly and completely average last year, with two exceptions:  They were great at getting to the quarterback and awful at forcing turnovers.  Prior to Thomas's injury I thought Fresno St. lost enough talent that they wouldn't be much better, but brought enough back that they wouldn't be much worse . . . but without their lynchpin in the secondary and with a first-time starter walk-on set to replace him?  That sounds like a very risky proposition to me.

This is the type of defense that Cal would have scored against pre-Kevin-Riley injury and struggled to score against post-Kevin Riley-injury.  If you believe Cal’s offense has improved from last year then there should be plenty of room for optimism.

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