Nov. 7, 2000
By Brian Risso, Fresno State Media Relations
Not that this unit needed a game like the 58-21 throttling of Nevada two weeks ago to reassure them of their enormous potential. The consensus among these players is that such a complete, well-played football game was inevitable.
"We preach ball security and our offense is just starting to execute," explained versatile running back Paris Gaines, who is coming back from a torn ligament in his right knee suffered in last season's EA Sports Las Vegas Bowl. "I guess the Ohio State game was kind of a wake-up call in that we knew we couldn't turn the ball over six times and win the game. We have enough talent to hold our own with almost anyone and we know if we execute we will win."
One of the reasons for those early season struggles was the fact that the Bulldogs hadn't yet meshed as a unit and were still adjusting to each other. Five games into the season, Fresno State now boasts an offense that continues to improve each week.
"A lot of it just comes down to continuity, having the same 11 guys on the field," said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. "We're getting more consistency out of our offensive line and the health of our running backs is improving."
In a way, the quarterback position is a direct microcosm of the entire offense. Junior David Carr struggled mightily at Ohio State, throwing four interceptions in a lopsided 43-10 loss to the Buckeyes. One week later at UCLA, Carr began directing the Bulldogs on what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown drive only to fumble a snap, which ultimately cost Fresno State a chance at an upset win. However, since then Carr has been tremendous. Coming into tonight's game, Carr is averaging 216.2 in total offense, fourth in the WAC. Carr is also second in the conference in passing efficiency and continues to frustrate opponents with his athleticism and good decision-making on the field.
"His decision-making process has improved greatly," Ludwig said. "He has excellent pocket awareness, tremendous poise and his confidence is growing with each game." Sophomore running back Derrick Ward acknowledged the early season growing pains, but said he has noticed a change in Carr's performance.
"It's expected since he sat out all last year," noted Ward. "But he's starting to find his groove."
And so is the running game. Sophomore running backs Josh Levi and James Tillman have received the majority of the carries for the Bulldogs and are one-two in rushing yards. With the sudden emergence of Ward and Gaines into the Fresno State backfield, the running game appears to be on the rise. Gaines' knee may not be at full strength, but he has been an important receiving weapon out of the backfield (11 carries, 97 yards). Ward has demonstrated his big-play capability, scoring on runs of 86 yards vs. Nevada and 75 yards vs. Colorado State. He has also blocked two punts that have been returned for touchdowns.
The dangerous wide receiver tandem of Rodney Wright and Charles Smith has also been a factor in the Bulldog's recent offensive success. Just ask Carr and he marvels at the thought of being able to have such great receivers on opposite sides.
"I just try and get the ball into their hands as fast as possible," Carr says with a smile. "I'm half the athlete those guys are, so I want the ball in their hands as much as possible. I think everyone knows what they are capable of doing when they get the ball."
Despite the fact that the Bulldogs easily handled Nevada without the services of Wright (calf strain) and Smith (ankle sprain), both have become key fixtures in the offensive game plan. Wright has been the Bulldog's leading receiver despite missing the last two games, collecting 297 yards in 30 receptions and scoring two touchdowns. Smith owns a gaudy 17.1 average yard-per-catch total along with three touchdowns. Tight end Jeremy Johnson has also contributed to the offense (18 rec, 215 yds, 2 TD), as has sophomore wide receiver Bernard Berrian (12 rec, 164 yds, 1 TD), who also returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown against Nevada.
Overall, the offense has come together and has begun to click with the defense, which had been the Bulldogs' calling card throughout the first few weeks of the season.
"The best defense is the one not on the field at all," said Gaines. "We're trying to keep our guys off the field. They're playing great, giving us opportunities and getting the ball back."
True, but it sure helps to have an explosive offense. Thank you Nevada.