Friday, August 29, 2008

GAME PREVIEW: Fresno State @ Rutgers

Fresno State saw a drastic change for the better in Tom Brandstater (6-5, 225) last season, and will quickly find out if he’s going to make the same types of strides this season as a senior. Brandstater’s confidence and performance down the stretch last year – including trusting his speed and not hesitated to take off with the ball – have many believing he’ll be one of the top handful of quarterbacks in the next NFL Draft. Brandstater completed 63% of his passes for 2,654 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions last year – an eye-opening improvement from 55%, 1,490 yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions as a sophomore. If the game is close, don’t be surprised if true freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-1, 210) appears on the field for a surprise play or two – he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at a high school combine.

Rutgers senior Mike Teel (6-4, 220), like Brandstater, is a third-year starter. Teel put up more prolific numbers last season with 3,147 yards and 20 touchdowns, but was also less efficient completing 58% of his throws and tossing 13 interceptions. The big test for Teel will be how he performs under the spotlight now that superstar tailback Ray Rice is gone. Teel is likely to see more pressure and focus shifted toward the passing game. But he proved a lot last season directing the first offense in NCAA history with a 3,000-yard passer, 2,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers. Reserve junior Jabu Lovelace (6-2, 215) is a running threat with 332 yards and 4 scores in 2007.
Edge: Even

Running Back
If the Bulldogs’ talented trio protects the ball and controls the clock, Rutgers will have a tough time winning. Sophomore Ryan Mathews (5-11, 215) and junior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 215) are expected to share most of the carries with junior Anthony Harding (6-0, 215) taking handoffs and catching passes out of shotgun formations. Mathews is plain and simple one of the most talented backs in the country, and led the team with 866 yards and 14 touchdowns (tops in the nation for freshmen) last season on 6 yards per carry. Miller had 625 yards and 5 touchdowns on 4.6 per carry, and Harding 449 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 3.9 per carry (but he often got the ball in short yardage situations).

Ray Rice was just pure dominant last season, there’s no other way to put it. But gone are his 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns – being replaced by two sophomore backs who combined for just 54 carries and 260 yards last season. Neither Mason Robinson (5-10, 190) or Kordell Young (5-9, 185) scored a touchdown. Young went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third game last season against Norfolk State. The ol’ big-shoes-to-fill adage doesn’t get any more appropriate than this.
Edge: Bulldogs

This might be the most depth the ‘Dogs have ever had at wide receiver – and they’ve had a lot. Junior Marlon Moore (6-0, 190) broke out late last season with 5 touchdowns in the final 6 games, and tallied 48 catches for 694 yards as arguable the team’s fastest player. The go-to receiver from 2006 returns after missing last season with an injury in junior Chastin West (6-1, 215). Add to that an expected breakout year by deep threat Seyi Ajirotutu (6-3, 210), who had 491 yards on 16.9 per catch, the team’s top possession receiver junior Jason Crawley (6-2, 185) and sophomore Devon Wylie (5-9, 170), who is basically uncoverable in the first 10 yards of a route, and defense should be scared. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to key on senior Bear Pascoe (6-5, 260), one of the best three tight ends in the nation

The Scarlet Knights send an absolute two-headed monster onto the field in junior Kenny Britt (6-4, 215) and senior Tiquan Underwood (6-2, 185). Underwood led the team with 65 catches and was second with 1,100 yards and 7 touchdowns. Britt was second with 62 catches and led the squad with 1,232 yards and 8 scores, while racking up a whopping 19.9 yards per catch. Junior Tim Brown (5-8, 165) added 340 yards and 2 scores, and senior tight end Kevin Brock (6-5, 255) had 241 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rutgers doesn’t have quite as many weapons here as Fresno State, but the Bulldogs will have to keep constant attention on a Britt-Underwood duo that Pat Hill said will be more of a challenge than USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith in 2005.
Edge: Scarlet Knights

Offensive Line
Four starters return from a group that allowed just 18 sacks last year, and senior left tackle Bobby Lepori (6-5, 290), senior left guard Cole Popovich (6-2, 290) were both major parts of the unit that allowed only 12 sacks in 2006. Fresno State has at least four legitimate first-team All-WAC candidates in Lepori, Popovich, sophomore right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) and senior right tackle Kenny Avon (6-3, 285). Attempting to fill the large shoes of departed Ryan Wendell at center is junior Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285), who came on so strong in fall camp he unseated sophomore roommate Joe Bernardi (6-2, 290), a future All-WAC player.

While the line is a big unknown for Rutgers with three starters gone from last year, standout sophomore left tackle Anthony Davis (6-6, 325) returns as the only sophomore named to the Outland Trophy watch list. Junior center Ryan Blaszczyk (6-4, 295) is the other returning starter, though senior right tackle Mike Gilmartin (6-5, 290) saw action in every game of 2007. The other two starters are redshirt freshmen in guards Kevin Haslam (6-7, 295) and Caleb Ruch (6-4, 285).
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Line
Many have questioned what is somewhat of a no-name defensive line other than senior Jon Monga (6-2, 280), the WAC’s premier pass rushing tackle with the best motor on the team. But the ‘Dogs expect just as big a pass rush from the edge with a healthy senior Ikenna Ike (6-2, 255) at end. The team’s biggest problem defensively in recent years has been stopping the run. If sophomores Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) and Mark Roberts (6-4, 300) play as well as they did in spring and fall camp, the problem will be alleviated. Keep an eye out for sophomore Chris Lewis (6-3, 260), one of the most ballyhooed recruits on the roster who could be an X-factor as a reserve end.

The biggest knock on Rutgers’ defensive front is size up the middle. Senior tackle Pete Tverdov (6-4, 270) and sophomore Alex Silvestro (6-4, 250) are much leaner and lighter than the typical major college tackle. But Fresno State has, at times, had some trouble with smaller, quicker defenders. Tverdov started 8 games last season with 36 tackles (8.5 for losses) and a sack, while Silvestro made 3 starts with 13 tackles and a sack. Both will have their work cut out for them against a strong push from Fresno State’s experienced line in the running game. The ends though, excel in the pass rush. Senior Jamaal Westerman (6-3, 265) led the Knights with 8 sacks, while junior George Johnson (6-4, 260) tied for third with 4 sacks as a part-time starter.
Edge: Bulldogs

Sophomore Ben Jacobs (6-3, 240) was an instant standout last season, finishing second on the team with 81 tackles. At the position with the least proven depth on the team, it’ll be up to him to raise the bar as new starters are ushered in. Sophomore Nico Herron (6-3, 240) is a ferocious hitter, and sophomore converted end Chris Carter (6-2, 220) has great speed and strength. Expect redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) to make his pass-rushing presence felt.

Senior Kevin Malast (6-2, 235) is the stud of the unit, finishing second on the team with 92 tackles (7.5 for losses) and 2 sacks in 2007. The team’s third-leading tackler (67 tackles, 7 for losses, 2.5 sacks) from a year ago is junior Damaso Munoz (6-0, 215) who’s listed second on the depth chart in the middle behind junior Ryan D’Imperio (6-3, 240), who broke his leg in spring 2007. Redshirt freshman Manny Abreu (6-3, 245) fills the other starting role. Abreu was rated the No. 2 weak linebacker in the nation coming out of high school by one recruiting service.
Edge: Even

Defensive Back
The biggest positive in the secondary coming out of camp is a newfound aggressiveness that was missing last season when the team finished tied for a nation-low four interceptions. Junior corners A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) and Damion Owens (5-11, 200) team with senior Sharrod Davis (5-11, 190) to form what looks to be a formidable unit. Jefferson has tremendous athleticism and speed, Owens is a coverage specialist and Davis keeps his man in front of him and delivers strong tackling. Junior strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) showed immense improvement in his closing speed during fall camp, and is the team’s hardest hitter. Junior free safety Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205) can deliver punishment as well.

One of the top free safeties in the nation lives in Rutgers’ secondary in senior Courtney Greene (6-2, 215), who is on both the Nagurski and Lott trophy watch lists. He led the team with 101 tackles last season (2.5 for losses), a sack and an interception. Junior Zaire Kitchen (6-2, 215) and sophomore Joe Lefeged (6-1, 200) are battling for the strong safety spot. The McCourty brothers return at the corner position in senior Jason McCourty (5-11, 190) and sophomore Devin McCourty (5-11, 185). Devin led the team with 2 picks last season.
Edge: Even

Special Teams
A.J. Jefferson led the nation at 35.8 yards per kick return last season, including 2 touchdowns. The Bulldogs are almost among the tops in the country in blocked kicks as well, with Jefferson returning one for a touchdown last year. Bear Pascoe is a force who disrupts the middle of field goal formations. However, the ‘Dogs must break in a new kicker in redshirt freshman Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190), a power-legged lefty who was lights out in camp. Sophomore punter Robert Malone (6-2, 215) has a chance to be a special player if he finds consistency.

Like Fresno State, Rugers introduces a new kicker in redshirt freshman San San Te (5-9, 180), who was rated the No. 5 prospect nationally by one service coming out of high school. Sophomore punter Teddy Dellaganna (6-2, 210) also has yet to see game action. In the return game, the Knights were led by Tim Brown’s 20.7 yards per kick return, and had no one shine returning punts.
Edge: Bulldogs

Hey, it’s Pat Hill sticking to that “anyone, anywhere, anytime” mentality by opening at Rutgers. Hill is the longest tenured coach in the WAC as he enters Year 12, and is among the top 3 and 4 of WAC coaches in all-time wins and bowls. For the fourth time in the past 8 years, Hill has the national media talking BCS for the ‘Dogs.

Eighth-year coach Greg Schiano deserves respect. The guy turned around a Rutgers program that was absolutely stuck in struggles for years, and has led it to three straight bowls. And, unlike many BCS-conference coaches, Schiano doesn’t shy away from good competition in the early season. The two coaches are very similar in style and philosophy, but Hill wins out on longevity.
Edge: Bulldogs

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