Photo courtesy of Fresno State Athletics
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The days of taking on anyone and everyone may have come to an end at Fresno State following a disappointing 2011 campaign during which the Bulldogs won a total of just four games, and one of those was against North Dakota by a mere five points at home.
Head coach Pat Hill, never one to back down from a challenge, tried desperately to keep his Bulldogs relevant last season as they tried to transition to a new starting quarterback in Derek Carr, but the road proved to be far too rocky for the squad. The team began with back-to-back road defeats against California (36-21) and Nebraska (42-29) before picking up that 27-22 victory over North Dakota at home. Fresno State followed that up with a 48-24 thrashing of Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference opener on the road to even its record at 2-2, just before it all began to go downhill.
The Bulldogs accepted a 38-28 beating by Ole Miss and then were crushed by Boise State, 57-7, in one of the most lopsided defeats in program history. The team managed to bounce back with a 31-21 triumph over Utah State in the middle of October in order to move to 2-0 in conference, but that high-water mark was quickly erased as the team dropped three in a row to Nevada, Louisiana Tech and an awful New Mexico State program. A narrow 24-21 win over Hawaii, which was without its top offensive performer, did little to change where the Bulldogs were headed as they bowed to both San Jose State and San Diego State in the last two games of the season to finish 4-9 overall and just 3-4 in conference play.
While FSU may continue to challenge the higher-profile BCS teams in the future, it will being doing so without Hill who was relieved of his duties in early December. The face of the Bulldogs for 15 years, Hill finished with a record of 112-80 and was 78-40 in conference play, but with the team winning just one of its last five postseason appearances, the school felt it was time for a change in leadership. Less than two weeks after dismissing Hill, Fresno State announced the hiring of Tim DeRuyter who had been the interim head coach at Texas A&M. DeRuyter, who is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and spent several years on the coaching staff with the Falcons, was also the co-defensive coordinator within the last decade at Nevada so he has some familiarity with the Bulldogs for sure as he begins his head coaching career.
One of the goals for the new coach will be to turn around his team's awful turnover margin which stood at minus-1.08 per game a year ago, last in the WAC and 116th nationally.
OFFENSE: Except for the outing against Boise State when the Bulldogs were crushed by 50 points on their home turf, the offense was never really the problem for FSU in 2011, and that's good news heading into this season.
Named the MWC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, Carr continues to battle not only opposing players on the field, but the mystique of his own brother, David, who was a Fresno State quarterback himself and was selected as the top pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
After starting off a bit slow in 2011, Carr had a breakout game against Idaho with a career-high 5 passing touchdowns. During one three-game stretch in the second half of the season, he threw 3 TD passes in each contest, eventually finishing with 26 TDs and more than 3,500 yards through the air.
Carr, named to both the 2012 Manning and O'Brien Award Watch Lists, has lost his favorite target in Jalen Saunders (50 receptions, 1,065 yards, 12 TDs), but he does still have Rashad Evans as a primary go-to guy down the field after he produced 44 catches for 351 yards and 3 scores a year ago. Add in Josh Harper (35 catches, 497 yards, 5 TDs) and a host of other eager receivers, and the Bulldogs appear to be in fine shape.
With four returning starters along the offensive line (Richard Helepiko, Trevor Richter, Austin Wentworth and Cody Wichmann), Carr should be able to stand tall in the pocket and pick and choose his targets.
Should Carr opt to hand the ball off instead, he has one of the top running backs in the nation lining up behind him in Robbie Rouse. An all-conference performer in his own right, Rouse worked along with Carr as the duo directed player-run practices, skirting NCAA rules that prohibited coaches from overseeing such activities.
Rouse, who has been named to the Doak Walker and Walter Camp Preseason Watch Lists, ran for a staggering 1,549 yards and scored 13 TDs a year ago and is now on the verge of becoming the all-time rushing leader in Fresno State history as he enters the season as the nation's fourth-leading active rusher with 3,157 yards and needing just 317 yards to set the new standard at FSU.
"The way Derek [Carr] and the receivers are playing, it's going to take teams out of the box and that's going to give me opportunities to run with smaller boxes than I did in past years," Rouse says. If they load the box, Derek is going to throw for a lot of yards, so it's going to go back and forth. That's how I see it."
DEFENSE: Bringing back seven returning starters on the defensive side of the ball is certainly a positive for the Bulldogs, but they'll need contributions from everyone in order to bounce back from a dismal campaign that saw the group ranked 106th in the nation in both pass defense, allowing 269.2 ypg, and scoring defense (35.2 ppg).
The squad will be taking their cues from outside linebacker Travis Brown who was named to the preseason all-conference team in addition to being on the preseason watch lists for the Rotary Lombardi Award and the 2012 Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Brown was responsible for a team-best 85 tackles last season, recording 8.5 for loss and a total of 3 sacks.
Up on the front line the pressure will be applied by Tristan Okpalaugo who tied for second on the team in TFLs with Brown and placed second in sacks with 4, even as he made just 31 stops overall.
Picking up the slack left by Logan Harrell (71 tackles, 17.0 TFLs, 6.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) might be the toughest task of all for this group of Bulldogs.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Like every team in college football, the Bulldogs lost key figures all over the roster, but the squad has been especially hurt by the departure of kicker Kevin Goessling. Despite converting just 10-of-17 on field goal attempts a year ago, Goessling still finished his career as the all-time leading scorer for the Bulldogs with 373 points, and that will be tough to replace.
Punter Andrew Shapiro returns after kicking away 66 times last season with an average of close to 40 yards per try. Shapiro, who is also slated to handle the kickoffs in 2012, managed to land 21 of those kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but he also had two attempts blocked so with him you have to take the good with the bad.
Despite his redshirt freshman status, Quentin Breshears shows up at the top of the depth chart for the placekicking duties, although junior Blake Dunn will also be hanging around and competing for the job as well.
OUTLOOK: Coach DeRuyter has quite a bit of work ahead of him, not the least of which is trying to make the fan base forget about Pat Hill as he tries to put his own stamp on the program.
"We're going to put a product on the field that the fans are going to be extremely proud of," DeRuyter said after his hiring. "It's going to be up-tempo and fast. When you play football, you got to be passionate about playing the game.
"We're going to talk a lot of the time about playing with fanatical effort. That's a level that most aspire towards and doesn't come naturally. As long as our guys understand that we are going to approach this with fanaticism, that's going to be the winning edge for us on both offense and defense."
Those are certainly some lofty expectations for a team that has all of its toughest games on the road at the likes of Oregon, Boise State and Nevada.