The Fresno State Bulldogs got a lot of lucky on Saturday in a 34-31 victory over FCS Eastern Washington, which went to double overtime.
They clinched the victory with a play that was anything but luck, more the work of the savvy fifth-year senior linebacker Levelle Bailey, who made his 38th career start. After the Bulldogs were held to a field goal and the Eagles had a chance to win if they could get into the end zone, Bailey raced to the left sideline where he picked off a first-down pass by quarterback Kekoa Visperas.
“We knew we needed a stop, obviously, and (defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle) called a great play call,” Bailey said. “I knew if they were going to pass the ball they were going to roll out - they were getting the quarterback out of the pocket all night. I knew I just had to hold my leverage and play the ball. I just jumped it.”
But it was one of the few plays for the Bulldogs (2-0) that went exactly right, and some of that could be expected in a rough spot on the schedule.
Fresno State was coming off a victory at Purdue, a Big Ten road win. They have another big opportunity coming up next at Arizona State, a Pac-12 team. In between were the Eagles, and Fresno State had won 17 in a row and routinely smacked opponents from the championship subdivision - they beat Cal Poly 35-7 last season and 63-10 in 2021, beat Idaho 79-13 in 2018 and Incarnate Word 66-0 in 2017.
But Eastern Washington (0-2) was there until the last play. They out-gained the Bulldogs.(366 to 364) had more passing yards (233 to 223), more first downs (22 to 21), a better conversion rate on third down plays (38.9% to 26.7%).
Quarterback Mikey Keene hit 23 of 29 passes (59%) for 223 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and was sacked three times.
A Fresno State offense that rolled up 487 yards and 39 points last week in beating Purdue struggled, and the roots of that go back years.
Pat McCann and Jeff Copp, the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator and the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, coached together at UC Davis for three years and at Eastern Washington for two. At the Bulldogs’ press conference at the start of game week, McCann said he is one of the smartest people he knew.
EAGLES FLIPPED SCRIPT ON BULLDOGS
“They pose some challenges just because I know they’re going to be well coached and be schematically sound and they will have a plan for us,” McCann said. “They do some stuff that is very specific game plan by the opponent they’re playing, so I know that they will have some stuff schemed up for us.”
Copp did exactly that, giving Keene and the Bulldogs different looks and much more zone coverage, and he had Eastern Washington in position for a huge upset.
The Eagles were a 30.5-point underdog.
“He knows I’m an old DB guy at heart and he knows I like to play man coverage and that’s what we put on film last week (against North Dakota State),” Copp said. “But, different game plans for different teams, and we felt it was better to throw some different zones at them and make the quarterback play quarterback.”
Fresno State at Purdue had shredded the Boilermakers, who played primarily man coverage outside with a single high safety in the middle of the field.
McCann and the Bulldogs were able to create favorable matchups, particularly with slot receiver Erik Brooks. Keene hit 70,5% of his passes, threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns. Brooks caught nine passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns, making at least one catch against all five of the defenders Purdue rolled out there against him in man coverage and averaging more than 20 yards per catch against three of them.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE FOR MIKEY KEENE
But they didn’t get those opportunities against Eastern Washington, which also was able to get pressure on Keene without a lot of blitzing.
“After watching them against Purdue last week it was tough to play a lot of man, so we mixed in different zones and played to our strengths a little bit,” Copp said. “We kept the ball in front of us and made them go on sustained drives and fortunately we were able to get some stops on third downs and some penalties.They put themselves in some tough third downs and we took advantage of it.”
Fresno State did not react well to it. It was only 4 of 15 converting third downs, its average yards to gain 9.0. Some of that was due to self-inflicted errors - the Bulldogs averaged 5.5 yards on their first-down plays, but were penalized twice for false starts and three times for holding.
They didn’t rush the ball particularly well at times - 14 of 34 plays went for two yards or less - and Eastern Washington had seven tackles for loss. Keene struggled with his timing, particularly on balls down the field.
Fresno State also was fortunate in that it had plus field position on two of its three touchdown drives in regulation - they were 42 yards in three plays and 20 yards in four. It also started at the Eagles’ 12-yard line on its touchdown in the overtime, after Eastern Washington was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when opening the overtime with a touchdown pass from Visperas to Anthony Stell Jr.
“I think it was a learning day for Mikey,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “I don’t know that we were seeing things as well as we had, and missed some throws. We had a deep throw open early in the game to (Mac Dalena) and we overthrew that. We just missed a couple things. A little too much air to (Brooks) in the corner. Just off, just a little bit.”
But the Bulldogs are 2-0, with a lesson learned.
“Give them a lot of credit. They did a lot of really good things and we didn’t play our best,” Tedford said. “We were behind the sticks a lot, penalties and things like that put us in some tough situations. But this is a good wake up call for us. It;s tough to bounce back and come home. I need to do a better job making sure we;re ready to play.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Fresno State is one of just three teams from a Group of Five conference that is 2-0 and has a victory over a Power Five conference opponent. The others are Wyoming with a victory over Texas Tech and James Madison with a victory over Virginia. The Bulldogs won at Purdue in their season opener.
0: Plays for cornerback Cameron Lockridge in the second half. Lockridge was suspended for a half for what Tedford called a team rules violation.
9: Total tackles by Bulldogs’ defensive end Devo Bridges, with eight solo tackles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
2: Fresno State now has the second longest active winning streak in the nation at 11 in a row. Georgia is No. 1 with 19 wins in a row. Troy was No. 2, but lost on Saturday to No. 15 Kansas State 42-13. Boise State handed the Bulldogs their most recent loss, 40-20 last Oct. 8 at Albertsons Stadium.
18: Wins in a row for Fresno State over FCS opponents.
35.2: The Bulldogs average yards on six punts by Carson King.
25: Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene was 3 of 12 on passes 15 or more yards down field, hitting 25%. In the opening victory at Purdue, he was 6 of 12.
41,031: Fresno State announced a sellout crowd. It was the first sellout for a home opener since 2014 when the Bulldogs played Nebraska. They had two sellout games last season, against Oregon State and San Jose State.
128: Fresno State had 223 passing yards and 128 of those yards came on plays by its wideouts and tight ends, after the catch was made. Erik Brooks had 95 receiving yards, 43 after the catch. Jaelen Gill had 40, with 38 after the catch. And, tight end Tre Watson had 47, with 37 coming after the catch..