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Analyzing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Fresno State

09/06/2019, 3:00pm CDT
By Daniel House

Despite losing a large amount of talent this year, Fresno State has reloaded and developed young players. Head coach Jeff Tedford is one of the best offensive minds in college football and has continually adjusted the scheme to maximize the potential of his players. When Minnesota travels out west, they will need to be ready for a talented Bulldogs team. Tedford is an innovative offensive coach and defensive coordinator Bert Watts runs a unique scheme. I highlighted a few things to watch for when the Gophers take on Fresno State:


The Gophers will be tested by Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna. Their coaching staff has done an excellent job of suiting the offense to his strengths. There are many designed runs that feature his rushing ability. Reyna had some trouble taking care of the ball out of zone reads due to jam-ups at the mesh point.

The Minnesota defense will need to be disciplined and contain the legs of Reyna. He is a very physical runner and if you over pursue a play, or try to shoulder him, he isn’t afraid to lower through contact. Reyna struggled when he faced pressure and tried to run too much. There were certain situations where he should have thrown the ball away or stopped himself from trying to thread the needle. For example, on one of the most critical drives of the game Reyna stared down his read, didn’t look off the safety and threw an interception into double coverage. Reyna completed just 48.7 percent of his passes, but managed to throw for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

I expect the Gophers to have a more elaborate defensive scheme where they mix coverages and vary the type of fronts they use. Last week, they didn’t have much flexibility due to their issues in early downs. Fresno State’s tackles were inconsistent in pass protection, so Minnesota has to create more long-down situations. As noted in my film review, the Gophers allowed more than 7.4 yards per play on first down last week. If they can’t stop junior running back Ronnie Rivers, the Bulldogs will have more options offensively. Rivers is a shifty back with fantastic field vision and yards after contact ability.

In the past, Fresno State’s offense has featured a melting pot of pro-style, spread and RPO concepts. They love to use pre-snap motion to move into different packages and create deception. This is another game where the Gophers’ defense (specifically the linebackers) will need to be more disciplined. With all of the different illusions Tedford will incorporate, Minnesota has to read and diagnose.

Head coach Jeff Tedford has always modified his conceptual ideas to align with the type of quarterback he is using. He is one of the best offensive minds in the game and will have plenty of looks to throw at the Gophers. The wide receiver room doesn’t feature much experience and the Bulldogs lost top receiver KeeSean Johnson to the NFL Draft. Derrion Grim is the most polished and skilled route runner in the room. Minnesota has to play more disciplined defensively and prevent big rushing performances from Jorge Reyna and Ronnie Rivers. If they can’t stop Reyna’s designed runs, they may become too aggressive defensively, which makes them vulnerable in the quick RPO game. Last week, the Gophers were pressing and trying to make a big play. They have to be more fundamentally sound to prevent this from happening again.


I’m most intrigued with the Bulldogs’ defense and how they approach their scheme. Under the direction of Bert Watts, the system has slowly evolved. He is quietly one of the most underrated defensive minds in college football. After running a traditional 4-3 defense, Fresno State primarily uses three-down linemen and plays a ton of Cover 1 and 3 in the backend. They will occasionally mix in a hybrid style 4-3 front with an edge rusher, too. From week-to-week, they vary their fronts and packages frequently. With the skills of senior safety JuJu Hughes, the Bulldogs have the flexibility to play him in the box.

They really had a ton of options with Mike Bell playing alongside Hughes last year. Fresno State has come up with a new way to use a “tite front” by implementing one-high coverage looks. A podcast I listened to this offseason with Bert Watts was fantastic and helped shed a light on his coverages and run fit philosophies. In a “tite front,” they align the defensive line in 4i – 0 – 4i and mostly run one-high coverages, instead of a traditional two-high look. The coaches are basically creating more flexibility for the Mike linebacker to roam and read/react (like a SAM linebacker). Essentially, your traditional 4-3 defensive end is the “jack” player who rushes off the edge and is playing like a pass-rushing “Will linebacker.”



Fresno State modified the 4-3 defensive front to better capitalize upon its personnel, while adding more wrinkles to the scheme. Within this, they will align into different fronts and send pressure packages. I would also expect them to try stunting when they align with two edge rushers. The Gophers struggled to handle this last week and Fresno State will capitalize upon its team speed in the front-seven.

Overall, this scheme is helping better defend the intermediate RPO game because they have an extra guy in the box that can read and play freely. You are also making it difficult for the tackle to scrape up to a linebacker by widening out the split from a three-technique (traditional four-down front), to a 4i. The guard also can’t easily pull to space due to the 4i alignment.

I recommend listening to the podcast for a deeper explanation into this fascinating defensive alignment. They still call their defense a 4-3 look because they essentially just shifted the positions and re-defined roles.

The Gophers will likely try to attack this defense vertically with posts and corner routes out of RPO. They can run bunch rub routes to attack the middle of the field. The 3x1 sets and bunch looks can be more difficult for this type of defense to defend, especially due to Fresno State’s coverage mentalities. However, in this case, it’s more about mismatches because they have an extra linebacker to help in coverage against 3x1.

You could also hit them out of 2x1 or 2x2 sets with a quick out and vertical route on one side. USC also used quite a bit of 2x1 looks when attacking the deep middle of the field.

In this example, USC cleared everything out in the middle with an underneath crosser and ran a deep post into the middle of the field. Safety Wylan Free got caught playing too far up the hash and couldn’t shift to the middle in time. Safety JuJu Hughes was helping with coverage in the box and this left plenty of space over the middle as the free safety was trying to execute his coverage responsibilities in the deep middle. Fresno State runs a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1 with a single safety playing the backend. This is where you have to exploit the middle of the field through your route concepts.


These type of plays can take advantage of the coverage structure and responsibility of the jack linebacker. In this game, you will see the slot receivers playing a big role in the route concepts. Wide receivers Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell could get mismatches on linebackers in the passing game. We will also see how Fresno State schemes to take away Tyler Johnson, which will drastically impact the type of coverages everyone else receives.

Fresno State can take away the intermediate game, but if you stress the deep middle of the field against one-high coverage, there is more space to work and a higher probability of coverage breakdowns. If you start doing this, it may force them to adjust their coverage scheme to take away the vertical routes. During the game against USC, the Fresno State coaches were taking away underneath concepts, but adjusted and played more aggressive in the second half.

This is going to be a big game for Tanner Morgan to read and diagnose the coverages. The pass rush won’t be as prevalent, so the route concepts they use will be extra important. Fresno State will mix its looks, so adjustments have to be made. The Bulldogs allowed 5.2 yards per play on first down last week and struggled to tackle well. USC averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the ground and I would expect Minnesota to try running the ball early. All of the USC backs picked up yards after contact due to poor tackling fundamentals.

After setting the table by running, Minnesota can work the deep half of the field/hashes to exploit coverage schemes that will likely emphasize taking away RPO slants and the intermediate/underneath passing game.

(Credit: clips pulled from ESPN)

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