Forget USC and Minnesota, Bulldogs’ biggest challenge up front could come from FCS Sac State

Fresno State has played and lost close games to USC and Minnesota, Power Five programs with big, physical and athletic defensive fronts. But the biggest challenge yet for a Bulldogs offensive line with three new starters is likely to come on Saturday – from FCS Sacramento State.

Game time is 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium. TV is online only.

The Hornets under first-year coach Troy Taylor and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson run multiple fronts and a lot of movement inside. That’s created havoc for the three teams they have played from three levels of football – NAIA Southern Oregon, FBS Arizona State and FCS Northern Colorado.

Sacramento State has yielded just 1..8 rushing yards per play, 59.3 rushing yards per game and just 12.7 points per game while racking up 30.0 tackles for loss.

“Against these guys, if you can make 3 yards a run that’s positive,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “To have the patience to be able to do that is key, because they do a really good job. They’re a little unconventional, they played really hard and they’re really well coached.

“As in any game, the line of scrimmage is really important and Sac State has won the line of scrimmage battle in all three games they’ve played so far this year.”

A 77-19 victory over Southern Oregon and a 50-0 shutout of Northern Colorado might not merit much attention, but the Hornets were within one score of Arizona State until the final five minutes when the Sun Devils finally broke a play, a 72-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Daniels to running back Eno Benjamin.

Sacramento State allowed just 15 first downs in that 19-7 loss, one by penalty. It allowed just 91 rushing yards on 39 plays, 2.3 yards a pop. It had 9.0 tackles for loss including one sack.

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Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna escapes a tackle by Southern California defensive lineman Jay Tufele, below, as defensive lineman Christian Rector, second from right, gives chase and tight end Jared Rice works his way open during the first half of the Bulldogs; 31-23 loss Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill ASSOCIATED PRESS

Benjamin, one of the best backs in the Pac-12, had 69 rushing yards on 24 plays, averaging 2.9 yards per play. One of those rushes went for 33 yards, so not many others were productive. Sacramento State, in fact, cut down Benjamin for 2 yards or less on 16 plays with six tackles for loss including three in a row from its 5-yard line late in the third quarter.

The Sun Devils got there on a 52-yard pass play, then …

  • First-and goal from the 5: Benjamin, minus-1
  • Second-and-goal from the 6: Benjamin, minus-1
  • Third-and-goal from the 7: Benjamin, minus-1

In the Las Vegas Bowl last season, the Sun Devils back churned out 118 yards on 23 plays against a Fresno State defense that finished the year ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and 30th against the run.

Fresno State has not rushed the football with much efficiency yet – the Bulldogs rank ninth in the 12-team Mountain West Conference at 3.9 yards per play and 10th at 131.5 yards per game. A chunk of that has come from quarterback Jorge Reyna, who in an opening loss at USC used some designed runs and evaded pass rush to scramble his way to 88 rushing yards.

The Bulldogs have in the past handled twists and stunts from opposing defenses, but they also have had much more experience up front to keep tabs on and neutralize all of the moving pieces. They will see plenty from the Hornets, who allowed just 4 yards of offense in a stretch of nine dominating series in their victory over Northern Colorado.

“Without a doubt, the message has been loud and clear about who we’re playing,” Tedford said. “I don’t care what the name is, I don’t care what conference they play in, all you have to do is put on the tape to know they’re an excellent football team.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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