How does a team that was a 12-2 Mountain West champion fall to 4-8 the following year?
It’s more nuanced than pointing your finger at one thing. There were several issues this season that the Bulldogs couldn’t move past, starting with the defense.
The Bulldogs didn’t adequately replace the starters they lost from last season – two defensive backs and all three linebackers. Before the season, it looked like Fresno State had the perfect replacements that were fast, physical and exciting, albeit a little young.
The results never came. The Bulldogs gave up only 14.1 points per game in 2018 while opponents scored 30.1 points per game this year. They gave up a full yard more per play this year (4.73 in 2018 to 5.73 in 2019), and the defense struggled to get off the field. Opponents converted on third down at a much higher rate this year (42 percent) than last season (34 percent).
The offense had a similar drop off, 44.5 percent conversion rate on third down in 2018 to 37.6 percent in 2019.
Outside of third down, the offense wasn’t much worse than 2018’s version, but – like the defense – it struggled to replace a few key assets.
Quarterback Jorge Reyna didn’t match the level of his counterpart Marcus McMaryion, most notably with the touchdown to interception ratio – 15:11 for Reyna and 25:5 for McMaryion.
Wide receiver KeeSean Johnson graduated after last season and is now catching passes for the Arizona Cardinals. While the current group of receivers flashed some incredible potential this year and should be very good moving forward, there was very little consistency out wide. No one came close to matching Johnson’s production (1,340 yards, 8 touchdowns). Wideout Zane Pope led the Bulldogs with 529 yards.
The offensive line was battered all season with a run of injuries. Last season, the Bulldogs used five starting combinations up front. This year they had to use 10. The ‘Dogs never had a chance to build chemistry and consistency with the O-line.
Another injury problem this season was at running back, although it was mitigated some since Ronnie Rivers and Josh Hokit both played well. The Bulldogs missed Jordan Mims though, who was out all season.
The other major difference on offense was on the coaching staff. After two seasons on the job, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer departed for Indiana, where he’s been an integral reason the Hoosiers have improved from 5-7 in 2018 to 8-4 in 2019.
Current offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb had a tough challenge in filling DeBoer’s shoes. There were times where Grubb could have done a better job (using wide receiver Jalen Cropper more), but he also showed impressive creativity and play calling at other times, such as in the 41-38 win over Hawaii.
Even though the Bulldogs struggled this year and regressed, this season could have been very different. It just felt like a year of missed opportunities. Outside of the blowout loss to Air Force, the ‘Dogs had more than a legitimate chance to win every other game they lost.
Fresno State only lost each game by an average of 7.5 points. Take out the 19 point loss to Air Force, and that number shrinks to 5.9 points per game. Essentially, every loss was by one possession.
This team was ultimately very frustrating – there’s no other way around it. The only complete game the Bulldogs played was the 56-27 win over UNLV. That was the one time they fired on all cylinders.
By the end of the season, we still didn’t know what Fresno State’s calling card was. We didn’t know how this team wins, and what this team could rely on. There was absolutely no consistency this season.
It’s hard to imagine, but Fresno State could have reasonably won at least nine games. But the Bulldogs simply made too many mistakes in crunch time. Late interceptions against USC and Minnesota; defensive breakdowns against Utah State, Nevada and Colorado State; and subpar offensive performances against San Diego State and San San Jose State killed this team.
The Bulldogs were young this year, and it showed. They couldn’t overcome couldn’t overcome the various challenges that they faced. Although they played close, it just wasn’t enough.
Photo: Fresno State Athletics