For Kelly Skipper--a running back since his days in Pop Warner, a starter at Fresno State since he was a freshman, and the son of Jim Skipper, a New Orleans Saints running backs coach--there is good news this year.
Fresno State, the school that fostered quarterback Kevin Sweeney, has been a place where players go to throw the football and to catch the football, but not so much to run the football. But coming into a game against Cal State Fullerton Saturday in Santa Ana Stadium, Fresno State, of all schools, has the best running game in the Big West Conference.
“To be a championship team, you’ve got to be balanced,” said Skipper, who despite starting for the past 3 seasons has never gained 600 yards in a season. “You’ve got to run and throw the ball.”
This year, in what might be a reaction to last year’s 6-5 record, Fresno State is running the ball more than it has in recent years--much to Skipper’s good fortune.
The Bulldogs rushed for 1,350 yards last year. In 5 games this season, behind Skipper and fullback Myron Jones, they have piled up 1,121 yards. Their average of 224 yards a game is more than 100 yards better than last year’s average. The closest Big West team to Fresno State is San Jose State, more than 80 yards a game behind.
What could compel Fresno State to run the ball?
It might have been the game against Utah State last season in which quarterback Dave Telford completed 40 of 70 passes--and the Bulldogs lost, 17-13.
Or the game against Pacific in which Fresno State rushed for 44 yards and Telford passed for a conference-record 536 yards--and the Bulldogs lost, 23-22.
“I guess we threw the ball so much, when we needed to run the ball to lock it up we couldn’t do it,” Skipper said.
This year, in an apparent change of tactics by Coach Jim Sweeney, the Bulldogs are doing a lot more running and trying fewer dangerous passes.
Telford had 10 passes intercepted last year, and was beaten out last spring by redshirt freshman Mark Barsotti. Barsotti has performed steadily, if not spectacularly, passing for 703 yards and 3 touchdowns with only 1 interception. Telford, in limited playing time as a backup, has passed for 109 yards this season--and had 5 passes intercepted.
When Fresno State (3-2 overall, 1-0 in the Big West) plays Fullerton (2-3, 2-0) Saturday in a Big West game that Titan Coach Gene Murphy calls Fullerton’s biggest of the year, two of the conference’s best defenses will be on the field.
But in what may prove the most interesting matchup, Fresno State’s new-found running game will be pitted against Fullerton’s rushing defense, which has allowed only 3.3 yards per running play, less than any team in the conference.
“I was impressed,” Jones said after watching film of Fullerton’s defense. “A.J. Jenkins, he impressed me a lot.”
Jenkins, a first-team all-conference end, is the leader of the Titans’ defensive line, and has seven tackles for losses already this season.
Jones, who walked on at Fresno State and earned a scholarship this year after redshirting last season, said he considered going to Fullerton from Los Angeles Pierce College, but decided on Fresno when he heard he could play in front of sellout crowds there.
At 5-feet 10-inches and 190 pounds, Jones doesn’t have great size for a running back, but he does have speed (Fresno State says he runs a 4.3 40-yard dash). In his first season playing for the Bulldogs, he is averaging 65 yards a game (5.5 yards a carry) and has scored 6 touchdowns.
Skipper, a senior, is even smaller, at 5-6, 180. But he is averaging 52 yards a game (4.4 yards a carry) and has scored 3 touchdowns.
"(The Titans) have a reputation with their line,” Skipper said. “They’re supposed to be the best in the conference. They’re big and strong and fast guys that can run. They’re real agile. They’ll have a couple of all-conference players right there.”
Skipper is one of only two Fresno players--safety Tony Harris is the other--who were were lettermen on the 1985 team that won the conference championship.
He’s looking for another championship this year.
“I think it’s going to be a fight,” Skipper said. “No team has really taken charge yet. But in a matter of weeks, we’ll see.”