We continue our Mountain West notebook — the biggest stories around the league reported by the league's beat writers — with the West Division.
While Fresno State and Nevada are coming off wins, a number of other West Division programs are trying to scrape together some success this week to get back on track.
Fresno State has scored 52 points in a victory over Rutgers and 41 in a win over Cal Poly and has a lot of weapons to work with including quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Davante Adams, Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse. But the Bulldogs are having some trouble with the little things - short-yardage runs and third-down plays.
The Bulldogs are tied for 104th in the bowl subdivision in third-down conversion percentage at 27.3 (9 of 33). They are only 5 of 12 on third-and-1 or third-and-2.
That 41.7 rate when needing only two yards for a first down is barely better than the Bulldogs fared last season on all third-down plays (40.5 percent) when they ranked 59th in the nation - and weren't happy to be that low in the rankings.
Coach Tim DeRuyter put a lot of that problem on the offensive line and said coaches would look at everything - including lineup changes - to get that fixed. The Bulldogs play at Colorado this week, which is ranked 13th in rushing defense and 15th in third-down conversion defense, though they have beaten Colorado State and an FCS opponent in Central Arkansas the first two weeks of the season.
"It is (important), and that's why we're going to emphasize it again this week and see if we can improve,'' DeRuyter said. ‘'If you want to win a championship, you're going to have to be able to convert third-and-shorts to finish games, to finish drives, and we don't have enough confidence in it right now to do that so we have to work it.
"We're looking at everything. If we can't get the ones to do it then we'll look at someone else, so we're looking at everything right now.''
The biggest thing is we're not communicating and sustaining blocks up front. We're almost worse in third-and-1 to -2 than we are in third-and-8 or -9 and a lot of that just comes down to communication and execution and just having the grit and determination that we're going to find a way to get a yard. We're not there yet, but we're going to get there.''
The Bulldogs' options are somewhat limited within an offensive line that lacks experienced depth - at the walk-through on Monday, the No. 1 line was the same as it has been since the start of the season, with Austin Wentworth at left tackle, Alex Fifita at left guard, Lars Bramer at center, Cody Wichmann at right guard and Justin Northern at right tackle.
But four of those five started at least five games last season, so there is experience there. Enough that they should be able to punch holes in a championship subdivision defense like Cal Poly, but the Bulldogs couldn't convert a goal-line situation last week. Fresno State had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line and then second-and-goal and third-and-goal at the 1. The Bulldogs ran the ball on the first two plays, threw it on the third and ended up having to kick a field goal.
"We're going to fix it,'' DeRuyter said. "We should be better than that. We have one new guy in there and Alex is relatively young because we moved him from tackle to guard, but we have to be better there.''
Next game: at Colorado, noon MT Saturday (Pac-12 Networks)
Notable: Fresno State lost backup free safety Rodney Mathews to a knee injury against Cal Poly. It has moved backup corner Shannon Edwards to free safety and slot receiver Dillon Root to corner to try to cover up a position group where there is not a lot of depth. ... Burse returned punts 61 and 58 yards for touchdowns last week - on the first, Fresno State had a punt block on, so when he fielded the punt, Cal Poly had him surrounded. He broke a tackle, then broke to his right upfield and back to the left on his way into the end zone. "He's so dynamic,'' Carr said. "The one touchdown we had a block called, which means there's no one blocking and he still got the ball, ran around everywhere and scored the touchdown. I mean, that's freak kind of stuff. He's a freaky athlete and it's stuff that we know he can do.''
- Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee
It appeared the Rainbow Warriors found their groove with their best drive of the season - nine plays and 80 yards - to tie the game at 14 against Oregon State entering the intermission. But they struggled in the second half, with none of the five possessions lasting longer than 2 minutes, 5 seconds, and eventually lost 33-14.
The Warriors shuffled the offensive line, with David Griffin starting at right tackle and Frank Loyd Jr. at right guard. But they converted once in 11 third-down situations, including three drops, and never found an offensive rhythm other than that second-quarter scoring drive. They had six three-and-out drives totaling 7 minutes, 11 seconds.
Quarterback Taylor Graham was 10 of 20 for 90 yards. Although Sean Schroeder was at the controls for the final three possessions, Graham will remain as the No. 1 quarterback.
The Warriors suffered three key injuries. Middle linebacker Brenden Daley, a co-captain who makes the defensive calls, suffered a concussion in the first half. Kawika Borden, a safety and long snapper, was injured making a tackle on a punt coverage. Safety Trayvon Henderson suffered a concussion when he was struck out of bounds after the play ended. Borden and Henderson were part of the rotation in place of free safety Marrell Jackson, who did not play because of a knee injury.
Next game: Sept. 21 at Nevada
Noteworthy: Running back Joey Iosefa, defensive tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii and tight end Jordan Pu‘u-Robinson are expected to make their 2013 debuts against Nevada. Iosefa has recovered from a fractured foot, Tulimasealii from a torn MCL and Pu‘u-Robinson from a sprained shoulder. ... Kody Rasmussen, a defensive lineman, has transferred from Colorado. He is the third transfer from an FBS school, following linebacker Jeremy Castro (UCLA) and receiver Quinton Pedroza (Utah). ... Because of the bye this weekend, the Warriors will have full practices Wednesday and Thursday and an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. ... The Mountain West has suspended special teams coordinator and safeties coach Chris Demarest for one game for his "inappropriate actions on the sideline" during the Oregon State game.
- Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
The Wolf Pack's preparation for its first trek into the Sunshine State to face No. 10 Florida State got off to an inauspicious start when their starting quarterback and co-starting running backs did not practice Sunday.
Quarterback Cody Fajardo took a shot to his right knee late in the second quarter of Nevada's 36-7 victory over UC Davis on Saturday in Reno. He appeared to be in a lot of pain but got to his feet fairly quickly and then played most of the third quarter until the game was in hand. After the game he was limping noticeably but said he would be OK.
"He's fine," coach Brian Polian said at Sunday's practice. "We gain more out of him for keeping him in the training room and getting treatment."
Don Jackson, the co-starting running back in the Wolf Pack's one-back offense, turned an ankle in Thursday's practice and did not play Saturday. He was at Sunday's practice but did not take part in drills. Kendall Brock had the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career (116 yards, two touchdowns) and rested Sunday, but Polian said he was fine, too.
Jackson was named the starter ahead of Nevada's opener at UCLA on Aug. 31, but Polian said both he and Brock would see significant playing time. Jackson asked the coaching staff to let Brock start because Brock didn't miss any practice time in training camp and Jackson missed a little more than a week with a minor leg injury.
Next game: at Florida State, 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday (ESPN)
Notable: The Wolf Pack drew 27,052 fans for Polian's home opener, which coincided with Chris Ault Night. The former coach was on hand for the pregame dedication of Chris Ault Field at Mackay Stadium. ... Starting offensive lineman Connor Talbott reinjured an ankle against UC Davis and is questionable for the Florida State game. He and Jackson are expected to be the only starters who are potential scratches. Reserve cornerback Tere Calloway (knee) is doubtful.
- Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
The Aztecs are on a bye this week.
Next game: vs. Oregon State, Sept. 21
San Jose State will take a physical approach during its first of two bye weeks this season. The Spartans, who lost to No. 5 Stanford 34-13 on Saturday, don't play until they travel to Minnesota on Sept. 21.
"This is a get-better week," coach Ron Caragher said. "I need this football team to approach this week as an opportunity to improve, to home in on fundamentals and to get after it and stay well-conditioned."
SJSU will focus on a lot of work with starting units battling each other, something that was common during spring and fall camp but less frequent during the season. Caragher has a particularly high-tempo practice scheduled for Sunday to help keep the team used to game speed.
The Spartans come in to the week off disappointed that they were unable to "slay the giant" a year after falling by just three points to the eventual Rose Bowl champion. The offense still hasn't been fully unleashed two games into the season, but Caragher saw positives in SJSU's 22 first downs collected against Stanford.
Next game: at Minnesota, Sept. 21
Notable: DB/KR Damon Ogburn Jr. (hamstring), LB Christian Tago (hamstring) and backup QB Blake Jurich (illness) saw action against Stanford, with Ogburn and Tago earning starts. The Spartans didn't suffer any additional injuries against the very physical Cardinal.
- Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
After UNLV gave up more than 50 points to each of the first two opponents, the Rebels' problems would seem to lie with their defense.
Five touchdowns were given up with the defense off the field and a sixth TD was set up by a 36-yard fumble return to the 9-yard line.
UNLV's defense, which allowed an average of 399 yards in the first two games, played well enough to give its offense a chance. But the Rebels were undone by three touchdowns on interception returns and two on special teams plays.
"Nobody, especially us and especially against a Pac-(12) or a Big Ten team, is going to win when you do those things," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
Now the Rebels (0-2) enter Saturday's home game against Central Michigan (1-1) as 7-point favorites, but know they need to clean up those damaging mistakes.
"I feel like our best game is yet to be seen, and that's where a lot of guys are still confident," senior linebacker Tim Hasson said. "We know we're better than how we've played the last two games. So everybody on the team is still ready to go and fired up and ready for next week."
Next game: vs. Central Michigan, 8 p.m. MT Saturday (MW Digital Network)
Notable: Hauck left open the possibility of starting senior Caleb Herring at quarterback over sophomore Nick Sherry, who has thrown 11 interceptions over his past five starts. But Sherry remains first on the depth chart. ... Central Michigan will start redshirt freshman quarterback Cooper Rush, who began the season on the third team. He came off the bench Saturday to rally the Chippewas to a 24-21 victory over New Hampshire, completing 19 of 32 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
- Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal
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