Saturday, November 10, 2007

Game Preview: Fresno State (6-3, 5-1) at Hawaii (8-0, 5-0)

Tom Brandstater’s most important job Saturday will be keeping Hawaii’s defense honest. If he shows early that he isn’t bashful about playing catch with the wideouts, it’ll open up the running game. Brandstater is having a far better season than last year, throwing for 1,642 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Most telling is his 60.1% completion rate.

Hawaii’s Colt Brennan (6-3, 201) is the second Heisman candidate Fresno State has faced this season. The other was Oregon’s Dennis Dixon. But unlike Dixon, Brennan isn’t going to look to run much – just pass, pass and pass some more. He has completed 68.6% of his passes, while throwing for 2,820 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That’s the good news, if there is any – he does make the occasional mistake.
Edge: Warriors

Running Backs
True freshman Ryan Mathews left the Utah State game in the second quarter – and already had 106 yards. He’s questionable for this week’s game, and sophomore starter Lonyae Miller has missed the past two games with injury. Miller is expected to return, but if he can’t senior Clifton Smith, who is best used as a versatile piece of the offense lining up all over the field, will carry the load. Smith led the team with a career-high 126 yards on 27 carries last week. Mathews leads the team with 751 yards and 12 touchdowns (best in the nation by a freshman), while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Miller has 402 yards and six touchdowns (4.3 per carry) and Smith has 367 yards and three touchdowns (5.3 per carry). Sophomore Anthony Harding has 154 yards and two touchdowns while also seeing time at fullback, but will play tailback if Miller and Mathews aren’t available.

As a team, Hawaii averages just 72.8 yards per game – less than Fresno State’s Mathews averages on his own (83.4). Running isn’t much a part of the Warriors’ gameplan. Freshman Kealoha Pilares (5-11, 190) leads the team with 294 yards and three touchdowns, while sophomore Nebraska transfer Leon Wright-Jackson (6-1, 211) adds 153 yards and a score. Both average 5.9 per carry, but get very few carries.
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State got a scare with junior tight end Bear Pascoe banged up from a hit during last week’s game, but he’ll be ready to go Saturday. Pascoe’s 37 catches, 462 yards and four touchdowns lead the squad. Sophomore wideout Marlon Moore has been a big boost for the offense since returning from a sprained ankle. He now ranks second on the team with 25 receptions for 315 yards. Clifton Smith also has 25 gras, with 267 yards total. Sophomore Seyi Ajirotutu, who averages 16.6 yards per catch, is a gamebreaker who the ‘Dogs can take better advantage of.

Everyone’s a threat for Hawaii. Four receivers have more than 500 yards, with junior Ryan Grice-Mullen (5-11, 180) leading the way with 952 and nine touchdowns. He averages 119 yards per game. Elusive junior Davone Bess (5-10, 195) also has nine scores to go with 748 yards. Senior Jason Rivers (6-2, 189) has 677 yards and six touchdowns, and despite missing most of the past two games is the nation’s active career leader with 3,422 receiving yards. Senior C.J. Hawthorne (5-11, 168) has 519 yards and five touchdowns.
Edge: Warriors

Offensive Line
Much like the Boise State game, the play of Fresno State’s line could be where the game is won or lost. If the line keeps the running backs moving forward and grinds the clock, there’s no reason the Bulldogs shouldn’t win this game. But that’s a big if unless the passing game keeps Hawaii from stacking the box. Fresno State is tied for a WAC-best 12 sacks allowed, matching the total the Bulldogs gave up last season. The team averages 4.7 yards per carry.

Hawaii is not far behind with only 14 sacks allowed, a feat considering how often the Warriors pass. Much like the Bulldogs, Hawaii features a smaller, more mobile line led by senior guards Hercules Satele (6-2, 293) and Larry Saufea (6-2, 294). The unit isn’t what it has been in recent years before the departure of numerous NFL-bound standouts. Hawaii averages just 3.5 yards per carry.
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Line
The youth is slowly beginning to step up for Fresno State, with true freshman end Kenny Borg and sophomore Wilson Ramos each collecting two sacks last week. That’s good news, considering senior end Tyler Clutts (7) and junior tackle Jon Monga (6) are amongst the WAC leaders in sacks. Pressuring Brennan into quick, short passes and capitalizing on a mistake or two will be key. Clutts is third on the team with 49 tackles (10 for losses).

Hawaii junior reserve end David Veikune (6-3, 252) leads the team with five sacks, just ahead of senior end Karl Noa (6-4, 251), who has four. Hawaii owns the WAC’s best rushing defense, allowing 102.5 yards per game and 2.9 per carry. But the Warriors haven’t yet faced a running game even close to what Fresno State brings when healthy.
Edge: Bulldogs

It’s hard to find new adjectives every week to accurately describe the type of impact player senior Marcus Riley is. He leads Fresno State with 94 tackles and 12 for losses. He also has three forced fumbles and two sacks. He hits often and hard and hunts down the ball carrier. Redshirt freshman Ben Jacobs is waiting in the wings with 64 tackles (seven for losses) and two sacks. The Bulldogs’ defense is most vulnerable to the run – namely running quarterbacks – something the team won’t have to worry much about this week.

Hawaii has a couple of standout linebackers of its own in juniors Solomon Elimimian (5-11, 218) and Adam Leonard (6-0, 236). Elimimian leads the team with 90 tackles (7.5 for losses) and Leonard is second with 72 tackles (10.5 for losses). Leonard also is tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Brandstater will have to be careful to watch for Leonard lurking in a coverage zone.
Edge: Even

Defensive Backs
Ah, the defensive key to the game. The problem for Fresno State is it has just three proven corners to defend four Hawaii receivers who rank among the WAC’s top 10 in yardage. Damon Jenkins is the only senior, with sophomore Damion Owens and A.J. Jefferson quickly making names for themselves. But watch for junior transfer Sharrod Davis to have a make or break game as the fourth corner, and for versatile redshirt freshman safety Lorne Bell to play a major role. Bell has a knack for picking off passes in practice, but doesn’t have one in a game yet – yet. The ‘Dogs will count on Bell and sophomore Moses Harris to lay big hits and get in the heads of Hawaii’s wideouts. Fresno State’s pass defense ranks second in the WAC, allowing 192.8 yards per game.

Hawaii senior corner Myron Newberry (5-9, 174) is tied for the team lead with four picks. Senior strong safety Jacob Patek (6-0, 204) is third on the team with 53 tackles. As a team, Hawaii has 16 interceptions, also including two each by senior corner Gerard Lewis (5-9, 175) and junior free safety Keao Montelih (5-11, 193). The ‘Dogs bigger receiving threats might be able to exploit Hawaii’s somewhat undersized corners.
Edge: Even

Special Teams
If you’re Fresno State, you want to ensure that special teams plays a big part in this game. The Bulldogs can dictate field position with the nation’s second-leading kick returner in A.J. Jefferson (36.1-yard average), who had an 88-yard touchdown return last week, and nearly untouchable punt returner Clifton Smith, who averages 16.2 yards and has returned two for scores. Kicker Clint Stitser hit a career-long 52-yard field goal last week, and Kyle Zimmerman ranks third in the WAC at 40.8 yards per punt. The Bulldogs recorded their fourth blocked kick against Utah State.

Hawaii poses a threat with Malcolm Lane (6-2, 184), who has returned two of his seven kick returns for touchdowns, averaging 46 yards. Davone Bess averages 9.8 yards on punt returns. Junior kicker Dan Kelly is 6 of 9 on field goals, with a long of 54 yards. All three of his misses came from 40 yards or more. Junior punter Tim Grasso averages 40.1 yards per attempt, with just 21 attempts on the year.
Edge: Bulldogs

It’s a matchup of the WAC’s two longest tenured coaches in Pat Hill (11th season) and June Jones (ninth season). After several years of Hill’s Bulldogs threatening to crash the BCS elitist party, Jones’ Warriors are the biggest threat this season. Will Jones come up with another (tall) tale this season of a thrown screwdriver?
Edge: Even

Fresno State has won at Hawaii just twice since 1965 – but the Bulldogs’ most recent trip, in 2005, was one of those two. Fresno State held a Colt Brennan-led Hawaii club to just 13 points in that game. Hawaii is 29-9 in home WAC games, and its fans have a particular distaste for the Bulldogs – they’ll show and they’ll be heard. If the ‘Dogs were within earshot, we’d give ‘em a big-time, win-one-for-DC3 pep talk – he’s truly amongst the loudest and proudest fans in Red Wave history.
Edge: Warriors

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