Fresno State is at the halfway point of a 2020 season that has been like no other.
Even though the Bulldogs were the last team in the nation to return to the practice field in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresno State – led by head coach Kalen DeBoer – has overcome the odds to jump out to a 3-1 record and a shot at a Mountain West title.
Those hopes of lifting the conference championship trophy will either live or die this week as the ‘Dogs host undefeated rival San Jose state in a battle for the Valley Trophy.
The Spartans are 4-0 for the first time since 1955 and kick off the toughest part of the schedule for the Bulldogs. Following Saturday’s contest, the Bulldogs will host 3-1 San Diego State – whose lone loss was to the Spartans – before a road trip to 4-0 Nevada.
Because of a poor Week 1 loss to Hawaii, the Bulldogs likely cannot afford to lose again this season to make it to the conference title game. They will have to run through the gauntlet over the next three weeks, facing a much tougher challenge than the three teams they just beat: Colorado State, UNLV and Utah State have combined for a 1-10 record.
But the focus is on this week and this week alone, as most football coaches would assert. Rivalry or not, DeBoer is no different.
“This is the honest truth,” DeBoer said Monday. “There was a time last week where I couldn’t even remember who was the next game after Utah State. Every day is a new challenge with just how we are in 2020, and you just try to get through that day and make the best plans you can for that weekend.”
DeBoer continued: “The games you remember happen in November if you approach it the right way,and that’s where we are. We’re definitely in November. I know it’s a different November, but it could be an awesome run here. We know that we have to take care of business this week, and our 100% focus is on San Jose and only San Jose.”
The focus on the Spartans starts with their defense which is giving up 15.3 points per game, good for second in the conference.
San Jose State’s defensive line has caught DeBoer’s attention early in the week. Defensive lineman Cade Hall was named the conference player of the week for racking up 4 tackles for loss against UNLV, including 3 sacks.
“In general, I think their front is very good, and I think they all make each other better,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s the strength of their defense and what they do up front. I think any of their guys could certainly have a day like Hall had. I really believe that. We certainly have a lot of respect just flipping the film on here even early in the week of what he did as well as what they all do together.
“They have a lot of confidence that they can get a pass rush with even three guys, and they’ve done that successfully against other teams. So we’ve got to be aware of where he’s at, but they’ve got some players around him that have had a lot of success as well.”
Hall leads the conference with 5.5 sacks on the season, and the Spartans as a whole are tied for second with 14 sacks. For comparison’s sake, Fresno State leads with 20.
Although San Jose State does not have as stout of a defense as a team like San Diego State does, the Spartans are much more of a threat on that side of the ball than the teams Fresno State has already played. Hawaii is eighth in scoring defense, and UNLV, Utah State and Colorado State round out the bottom three spots in the conference.
Quarterback Nick Starkel, a grad transfer from Arkansas, leads an offense that is above average in the Mountain West. The Spartans place sixth, averaging 29.3 points per game, and Starkel’s 245 yards per game is third-best in the conference. He also has 9 touchdown passes, which is tied with Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener for second.
Starkel has achieved those numbers while essentially missing one game – he was knocked out on the first drive against San Diego State. Backup Nick Nash came in to lead the Spartans to victory, and he brings a dual-threat ability to the table. Nash leads all San Jose State rushers with 177 yards on the ground, averaging 6.81 yards per attempt. Fresno State has notably struggled to contain opposing quarterbacks who can take off and run.
“It’s been impressive what they’ve done with two guys,” DeBoer said. “They’ve done it in different ways. I think Starkel is one that gives them more ability to get it to their skill, and the trigger man that way as throwing it, probably more so.
“When Nash comes in, he can do a little bit [of] both, but probably a little more nervous about his legs when he’s in there as well.”
Player of the week
For the second week in a row, Fresno State has produced the Mountain West Offensive Player of the week. Last week running back Ronnie Rivers was honored after his 4-touchdown performance against UNLV.
This week wide receiver Jalen Cropper receives the nod following his breakout game against Utah State.
Cropper hauled in 10 receptions for 202 yards and 3 touchdowns – all career highs.
The Parlier native and Buchanan High School grad was the first Bulldog to record three touchdown receptions since KeeSean Johnson in 2017, and he was the first receiver to break the 200 yard mark since Davante Adams in 2013.
“He loves the game,” DeBoer said. “He wants to get better. He knows he’s not there yet. He knows he’s got the potential to be [an] amazing football player. He’s technically working each and every day. I love how coachable he is. He can run by me in between plays, and I can say something – he’ll turn and actually stop and listen, even though he’s onto the next play. When we’re coaching on the run, he’s always trying to figure out what he could’ve done better.”
Last year Cropper burst onto the scene in his freshman season with his skill at running the fly sweep. While that skill has carried over into 2020, it’s his development as a route runner, DeBoer noted, that has been the main difference this season.
“He’s developed into a better route runner already this year,” DeBoer said. “The fly sweep thing was great last year. We still use that in the game, even this last weekend, but now you can see him converting third downs. I remember a ball in the third quarter that he caught and just really made sure he secured it, understood the game of football in the situation we were in – that we just needed to catch this ball and fall ahead for the first down. And he did that.
“The explosive plays come when you get more opportunities to get the ball thrown to you. He’s figuring that out, and really pleased and excited about what he did this last weekend. I know it’s a lot we could build off of. That’s just going to help open up other guys in the offense as well when people are focused on him.”
Photo: Fresno State Athletics