Saturday, September 13, 2008

Game Preview: No. 21 Fresno State (1-0) vs. No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0)

Tom Brandstater (6-5, 225) didn’t get off to the best of starts in the opener at Rutgers, completing just 11 of 24 passes. Still, he made big, clutch plays (including a long of 77 yards), resulting in 216 yards total. The most noticeable difference though between Brandstater now and Brandstater in his first year starting in 2006 is poise. He puts off a confident persona and looks like a leader on the field.. The Bulldogs didn’t show much of the variety expected from their offense this season, which should be an advantage. Plus, the X-factor or true freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-1, 210) remains. Will he make a cameo on Saturday?

After throwing just 10 passes for 75 yards in his starting debut against Akron, Allan Evridge (6-2, 212), a former Kansas State transfer, broke it open with 308 yards and a touchdown against Marshall last week. Evridge has completed 66.7% of his passes with 2 scores and 1 interception. In a come-from-behind blowout of Marshall, Evridge relied heavily on the short passing game with his tight ends, but also had a long of 42 yards.
Edge: Bulldogs

Running Back
Sophomore Ryan Mathews (5-11, 215) wasted no time proving last year was just a taste. He had ESPN analysts oohing and aahing on his way to 163 yards on 26 carries (6.3-yard average) and 3 touchdowns. Mathews’ big-play ability is pure instinct – the type of thing that can’t be taught. Still the Bulldogs will need more from co-starter (if you will) junior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 215), who had a 23-yard scamper, but just 6 yards on his other 4 carries. Junior Anthony Harding (6-0,215), has shown he will be deadly on draw plays this season. He had a long of 18 yards with 3 carries at Rutgers. While Mathews might be as talented as anyone Wisconsin has, the Badgers depth edges out Fresno State’s.

Just another area where these two teams are eerily similar. Wisconsin has three very good tailbacks, including junior P.J. Hill (5-11, 236), a guy similar to the running style of former Bulldog Dwayne Wright who’s already getting a little Heisman hype. Hill bombarded Akron for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns, but was held to just 57 yards on 18 carries (still with 2 scores) against Marshall. Still, the Badgers running game excelled behind sophomore Zach Brown (5-11, 207) and redshirt freshman John Clay (6-2, 237), a brute runner who might be the most talented of them all. All three already have more than 100 yards this season (Hill with 267, Clay 125 and Brown 123). And they’re all big backs. With fullback Chris Pressley (6-1, 259) leading the way, this unit plays straight up smashmouth football (sounds just like what Pat Hill talks about with his Bulldogs).
Edge: Badgers

Many predicted it, and it all came true as junior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-3, 210) had that breakout game with 3 catches for 113 yards, including a 77-yarder where he broke wide open through a blown coverage to set up the game’s first touchdown. But the key play of the game was his 31-yard twisting, leaping backwards grab on third-and-23 to give the Bulldogs a first down inside the 5-yard line and set up the clinching score. It’s honestly tough to predict who will be the team’s leading receiver this season between Ajirotutu, junior Marlon Moore (6-0, 190), junior Chastin West (6-1, 215) and sophomore Devon Wylie (5-9, 170). West left the Rutgers game early with injury, and his status is unknown for Saturday. Moore, the most established standout of the group, was surprisingly quiet with 1 catch for 9 yards, but Wylie took his second career reception 31 yards to set up a scoreless-tie-breaking field goal. It’ll be a treat to see arguably the nation’s two best tight ends head to head. Look for Bear Pascoe (6-5, 260) to be more involved this week. Senior tight end Adam McDowell (), who was just converted from offensive line, will join Pascoe in double tight end sets to essentially give Fresno State 7 above average offensive linemen. And injury to junior Isaac Kinter will be a big blow to the team’s short-yardage passing game.

Everyone’s waiting to see the showdown between Bear Pascoe and the guy many call the best tight end in America, Wisconsin’s Travis Beckum (6-4, 235). Beckum is expected to return from injury to make his senior season debut at Bulldog Stadium, and while he’s faster than Pascoe, he’s nowhere near as physical or strong in the blocking game. The Badgers’ tight end dominance doesn’t end there though. Sophomore H-back Lance Kendricks (6-4, 227) leads the team with 4 catches for 102 yards, and is followed by junior tight end Garrett Graham (6-4, 237) and his 6 catches for 96 yards and the Badgers’ only 2 receiving touchdowns. A pair of talented sophomore wideouts, David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson, couldn’t be much more different. Gilreath (5-11, 165) is a small, jittery runner, while Jefferson (6-5, 175) has the height to overmatch defenders. Yet, neither has become a standout-caliber receiver yet.
Edge: Bulldogs

Offensive Line
Junior center Richard Pacheco has his first start in the books (false start included), but the unit allowed Rutgers to apply all kinds of pressure in the first half. Partly to blame was bad field possession throughout the half, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Last year, sophomore Joe Bernardi shored up the line in his first start last season, and will be waiting to jump in if Pacheco struggles. The second half was a different story, as Fresno State completely wore down the Rutgers defense.

The Badgers’ line is as loaded with experience as Fresno State’s – and larger. The unit averages 6-6 and 319 pounds. The most inexperienced of the starters is sophomore center John Moffitt (6-4, 323) who started the final 6 games last season. Right guard Kraig Urbik (6-6, 332), an Outland Trophy candidate, has started 41 straight games for a group that’s combined for 114 career starts.
Edge: Even

Defensive Line
The front four wasn’t able to apply much pressure in the passing game at Rutgers. And that’ll be a challenge again this week against the large offensive line of Wisconsin. If the Badgers move to the passing game as they did last week against Marshall, the Bulldogs will need more bodies in the backfield. Jon Monga (6-2, 280) and sophomore Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) were the only two members of the defensive front combining for 1 tackles for a loss. Still, the unit engaged enough with their blockers to allow Fresno State’s linebackers and safeties openings to make plays.

End Matt Shaughnessy (6-6, 253) leads a veteran defensive front that includes 3 seniors. With 11.5 career sacks, Shaughnessy is a feared pass rusher who’s up for multiple honors. While he doesn’t yet have a sack this season, he’s got 5 quarterback hurries and 2 pass deflections. Senior tackle Mike Newkirk (6-3, 264) is the only Badger with multiple tackles for losses (2). Despite the talent, this hasn’t been much of a playmaking front four to this point in the season.
Edge: Badgers

Already the thinnest position on the team, the Bulldog took a big hit with the loss of sophomore Nick Bates (6-1, 210) to injury (reportedly up to 6 weeks). But many questions were seemingly answered with the young core of sophomores Chris Carter (6-2, 220) and Nico Herron (6-3, 240). Carter tied for the team lead with 8 tackles in his first game at linebacker, since being converted from defensive end. Herron made several big, physical plays as well. And the biggest standout might have been reserve redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (6-1, 215), who had 7 tackles (2.5 for losses) and the team’s only sack in his first collegiate experience. Sophomore Ben Jacobs (6-3, 240), the only returning starter, made a big play in pass coverage to prevent a touchdown, and seems to have already embraced the leadership role of the defense.

The Badgers’ biggest playmaker – hands down – has been junior Jaevery McFadden (6-3, 220), who leads the team with a whopping 20 tackles after 2 games. DeAndre Levy (6-3, 228) is tied for second on the team with 9 tackles. Fresno State’s offense will keep these linebackers busy, having to worry about Ryan Mathews out of the backfield, Bear Pascoe’s size at tight end and a bolting Devon Wylie on quick slants.
Edge: Badgers

Defensive Backs
So much for waiting more than half the year for an interception this season (as was the case the past two years). Junior free safety Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205) picked off two passes in the opener, including one on a flea flicker to the end zone. Junior corner A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) emerged as a playmaker in pass coverage, showing the timing ability to disrupt passes. Sharrod Davis (5-11, 190) also turned in a solid performance, with junior strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) tying for the team-high 8 tackles. The most pleasant surprise to Bulldogs fans was the quick return from injury of reserve safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200), who harassed Rutgers in its own backfield all day.

Oddly enough, for a Wisconsin defense built around speed, the secondary might be its least speedy unit, relatively. It’s definitely the youngest, with two sophomores, a junior and a senior starting. Sophomore corner Niles Brinkley (5-10, 177) already has 2 interceptions, and junior safety Shane Carter (6-2, 202) has the other for the Badgers. Reserve freshman corner Mario Goins (6-1, 186) is tied for second on the team with 9 tackles.
Edge: Bulldogs

Special Teams
Returning just two kicks in the opener, A.J. Jefferson didn’t get much of an opportunity to show off his skills that led the nation in kick return average (35.8 yards) last season. A bigger concern was Marlon Moore at punt returner – he made two questionable decisions to catch the ball deep in Fresno State territory, and on one ran side to side instead of getting up field. Redshirt freshman kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190) connected from 36 yards on his lone attempt, and junior punter Robert Malone (6-2, 215) averaged 39.8 yards on 6 tries while battling bad field position. Although they weren’t blocked, Fresno State held Rutgers to 0 for 2 on field goal attempts.

The Badgers young crop of legs is off to an impressive start. Freshman punter Brad Nortman (6-3, 215) averages 50.2 yards on 4 tries, and has booted 2 punts 50-plus yards. Freshman kicker Philip Welch (6-3, 190) is 2 for 2 with a long of 45 yards. David Gilreath averages 31 yards per kick return after taking one 63 yards. The Badgers are getting solid play from this group right now, but it’s still not proven against tougher competition.
Edge: Even

This is the perfect recipe for Pat Hill’s brand of football. The Bulldogs have now won three straight games against teams from BCS conferences. Fresno State stuck to a basic game plan in its opener, and showed hardly any of the unconventional looks seen toward the end of last year. That could catch Wisconsin off guard a bit if the playbook is opened up, although the Badgers did get plenty of scouting looks at Ryan Mathews.

What can you say negative about Bret Bielema. In just more than 2 years at Wisconsin, the former Wisconsin and Kansas State defensive coordinator is 23-5. Only two other Big 10 coaches have ever won 21 or more games in their first two seasons. The only knock is that he’s far less experienced as head coach than Pat Hill.
Edge: Bulldogs

Simple – the game’s at Bulldog Stadium. It’s the first Big 10 team to ever visit Fresno. Tied for the highest-ranked team to visit Fresno. A traditional powerhouse program. A sellout, standing-room-only crowd. The home opener. Jim Rome said on his show today these 45,000 fans at Bulldog Stadium will sound more like 90,000. If so, that’s going to affect the Badgers. The all-time series is 1-1, with Fresno State winning 32-20 at Camp Randall Stadium in 2001, and Wisconsin kicking the game-winning field goal with just more than 2 minutes left the following season to win 23-21 at Camp Randall.
Edge: Bulldogs

**Photos by Cary Edmondson

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