Fresno State Football: Two Years In, Jeff Tedford Leads A Team For The Ages
2018 might have been the most successful season in the history of Fresno State Bulldogs football.
A look back at a memorable campaign.
Life comes at you fast, especially in the world of college football.
A little over two years ago, I sat in the metal bleachers at Bulldog Stadium for the season finale against San Jose State. I can tell you exactly how many other people sat in my section (six) and how many of those people remained once the rain started falling (zero). I can tell you sitting in a rainstorm, watching two bad teams play a game, is not a pleasant experience. And I can tell you the Fresno State Bulldogs wore black that day.
I can see a bit of symbolism in looking back on that day, like the whole afternoon was a funeral to bury the worst season the program has ever had and leave it behind forever. Now, with the 2018 season in the books and for the first time in a while, it’s hard not to think that the sky’s the limit once again. What led the Red Wave to this point?
Here’s a look back at what stood out from a record-breaking campaign.
Marcus McMaryion cemented himself as one of the program’s all-time great quarterbacks.
You might think I’m leading with a bit of hyperbole but, among Bulldogs QBs with at least 500 career pass attempts, the only ones with a better career passer rating than McMaryion are Trent Dilfer, David Carr and Derek Carr. His 156.99 rating in 2018 is the best such figure by a Fresno State QB in the program’s short Mountain West history; yes, it even surpasses Derek Carr’s 2013.
Outside of an uncharacteristically shaky Las Vegas Bowl, McMaryion played mistake-free and efficient football for long stretches this fall, finishing with a sack rate of 2.7% and an interception rate of just 1.2%. He ran for exactly 362 yards (after adjusting for sacks) for the second straight year, topping six yards per carry while contributing eight rushing touchdowns. He also became a reliable decision-maker when the chips are down, moving the chains on 40.7% of his third-down passes after mustering 22.2% in his first year at the helm.
Even with the high-profile departures on both sides of the ball, replacing McMaryion might be the most difficult task of all.
Jared Rice became a weapon.
Speculating that the 6-foot-5, 230-pound tight end would be a problem for Mountain West defenders was popular among Fresno State enthusiasts before the season began, but it was another thing to actually watch it happen.
As far as my research could see, Rice’s 55 receptions were the most by a Bulldogs TE in the program’s history. Combined with a 73.3% catch rate that was the best among Fresno State’s pass catchers, he gave Kalen DeBoer’s offense an element that couldn’t be easily defended with all of the other assets around him. With Texas State’s Keenen Brown, Utah State’s Dax Raymond, and San Jose State’s Josh Oliver all moving on to the NFL, Rice is on a very short list of the Group of 5’s best tight ends in 2019.
The Bulldogs weren’t quite as disruptive as they were in 2017…
One of the season’s biggest questions was resolved adequately, if not emphatically, though it remains heading into the offseason. The team’s Stuff Rate (percentage of plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) fell from 22.6% to 15.2% (32nd to 112th) and its Havoc Rate (percentage of plays with a TFL, forced fumble, or pass defended) among the defensive line and linebackers fell from 10.9% to 8.8%. That ranked 62nd and 80th, respectively, as individual units.
Defensive end Mykal Walker deserves a huge amount of credit for curbing this decline to a degree, with 4.5 sacks and a team-high 14.5 TFLs, but finding more complementary pieces in the front seven will be something to watch in spring ball and beyond.
…But the secondary was sensational.
The aforementioned declines never came back to bite the Bulldogs too much, however, because the defensive backfield took a significant and collective step forward. Opponents’ completion rates fell by nearly eight percent while their interception rate jumped to 4.3% and, in contrast to the guys in front of them, the Havoc Rate among Fresno State defensive backs jumped from 6.3% (74th nationally) to 7.9% (19th).
Replacing Mike Bell and Anthoula Kelly, who combined for 26 passes defended and seven interceptions, will be challenging, but there’s no shortage of underclassmen, like Wylan Free and Chris Gaston, who will get a chance to step up and help hold onto these gains.
Special teams were a mixed bag.
On the one hand, punter Blake Cusick went out and made more progress in becoming one of the best in the country. 31 of his 65 kicks landed inside the 20-yard line, propelling him to a 78.5% Success Rate that ranked fifth in the FBS and providing a significant reason for Fresno State’s season-long advantage in field position. On average, opponents began their drives at the 25.3-yard line, which ranked second nationally.
On the other hand, Asa Fuller left a lot to be desired in replacing Jimmy Camacho. Not only did he miss five extra points, his 63.6% conversion rate on field goals was, among Mountain West kickers with at least 20 attempts in a season, the sixth-worst figure of the last decade. Granted, he made both of his kicks in the Mountain West championship in less-than-ideal circumstances, but he’ll need to take a step forward.
Now comes the hard part.
The Bulldogs benefited from continuity on both sides of the ball in Tedford’s first two years, but 2019 represents the first significant reload. It’s their good fortune that many of the other would-be contenders in the Mountain West face similar situations, but replacing a two-year starter at quarterback, a record-setting wide receiver, three starters on the offensive line and five of the defense’s top six tacklers will be a monumental task.
That’s not to say there isn’t still a lot to be excited about. Holdovers like Juju Hughes and Josh Hokit will provide a bridge from the departure of local products like McMaryion and George Helmuth to the likes of Emoryie Edwards and Jalen Cropper, giving the future Bulldogs a decidedly San Joaquin Valley feel, while the stable of running backs led by Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims will return to make life easier for whomever wins the forthcoming quarterback competition.
Fresno State might not begin 2019 in the spotlight, but ignore these Bulldogs at your own peril.