Robert Kuwada covers Fresno State for The Fresno Bee in Fresno, California. We caught up with him to talk about the Bulldogs ahead of Saturday’s game.
Davis Potter: The first thing that jumps off the page about Fresno is the defensive numbers even going back to last season. Is it surprising that the Bulldogs have become so defensive-minded given Jeff Tedford’s offensive background?
Robert Kuwada: No, not really. Tedford obviously is known for his work with quarterbacks and on the offensive side of the football, but when he was at Cal, his best teams also were very good defensively. There was a run there where they were allowing 16, 21.2, 19.3, 26.8 and 19.9 points per game, ranking in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense a couple of times. The surprising thing was the way he put that first staff together. The coordinator, Orlondo Steinauer, came in from the Canadian Football League. He hadn’t played or coached in the U.S. for a lot of years, and the CFL, that’s a different game. And, some guys on that first defensive staff knew each other, but they hadn’t worked together. The key was he hired some very good coaches, both on defense and on offense, including former Wyoming assistant Jamar Cain for the defensive line. Then, this season, they kept continuity. When Steinauer went back to Canada, he promoted from within elevating linebackers coach Bert Watts to coordinator, so they kept the same terminology and the same techniques. That has allowed the players to really take another big leap understanding and executing the defense.
DP: Fresno’s been one of the best teams in the nation at creating turnovers. What is it about that group that makes them so good at taking the ball away?
RK: The defense is just very well-schooled and disciplined. If you watch cut-ups of the interceptions — they have 11, tied for second in the nation — on some of them you’d think the defensive back is the intended receiver on the play. They’re very good disguising coverages, very good reading tendencies and very good with their coverage skills. If they were better at catching the football, they’d have four or five more interceptions — they’ve dropped a few. Here’s another thing that played into it — the first four games of the season they played Idaho, Minnesota, UCLA and Toledo and all four were breaking in first-year starting quarterbacks. That’s a tough go, an inexperienced quarterback going up against a veteran defense that returned all three starters at linebacker and all four in the secondary.
DP: How would you describe what QB Marcus McMaryion is asked to do in Fresno’s offense? And what are his strengths?
RK: McMaryion is in his second season now and with a full year, a spring and a summer under him, his base of knowledge and understanding of what they’re trying to get done on any given play is at another level. That would be his strength. He didn’t have that last season, coming in after Fresno State already was halfway through fall camp. He got a game plan every week and tried to execute it, and if a defense gave him a look he wasn’t expecting, he didn’t always have an answer. But right now, his completion percentage is 72, up from 62.1. His efficiency rating is 161.43, up from 137.65. His yards per pass play is 8.6, up from 7.8. He is averaging only five more passes per game — 30, up from 25.1 — but he is passing for 258.2 yards per game, up from 194.7. They also are much better in the red zone and on third downs, which are two areas Fresno State really struggled last season. That’s a lot of McMaryion.
DP: How would you gauge the performance of Fresno’s offensive line to this point?
RK: The offensive line took a big hit when Netane Muti was lost with an Achilles injury in the second game. He is their best lineman. Right now, they have one guy who was playing the same position a year ago, left tackle Christian Cronk. They have a first-year starter at right tackle, first-year starter at right guard and first-year starter at left guard. They certainly didn’t look very good last week at Nevada, but that team with its 3-3-5 (defense) is going to give a lot of teams trouble. Bottom line, I guess, Fresno State has had the same starting lineup for the past three games and faced completely different defenses, so they’re still figuring it out a bit.
DP: What’s an area where Fresno’s offense might have some concern going up against this experienced Wyoming defense?
RK: Fresno State could have problems in a lot of areas. Wyoming is good defensively. Rushing the ball is going to be a question until they gain some consistency there. For me, they’re trying to play too many running backs, but the line also has some work to do. If there’s an issue for them on Saturday, I’d say it’s there, inside in particular. I thought Youhanna Ghaifan gave them some problems last season and that’s when they had a center with 30-plus career starts, a right guard with 28 career starts and had Muti playing left guard.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.