Friday, September 26, 2008

Game Preview: No. 24 Fresno State (2-1) at UCLA (1-2)

Tom Brandstater is coming off his best game of the season, completing 22 of 28 passes for 231 yards and 4 touchdowns in a double-overtime win at Toledo. Brandstater also rushed for a touchdown. On the season, he averages 224 yards per game and has thrown just 1 interception while completing almost 61% of his passes. The Bulldogs haven’t let him throw downfield much yet though – a sign coaches either don’t think a more open style fits Brandstater’s game or they’re just being stubborn with a conservative mentality.

With UCLA’s top two quarterbacks shelved before the season started with injuries, the starting job fell to transfer Kevin Craft (formerly of San Diego State). He’s taken every snap this year, throwing just 1 touchdown compared to 5 interceptions (4 in a season-opening win over Tennessee). He’s completed almost 56% of his passes for 570 yards, and his season long throw is only 29 yards.
Edge: Bulldogs

Running Backs
For the first time this season, the Bulldogs got a game-breaking performance from a back not named Ryan Mathews. Though the sophomore Mathews led the team with 87 yards (and averages 101 yards per game), junior Anthony Harding rushed for 86 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown scamper that should have sealed the win. Fresno State now has three backs with more than 100 yards rushing on the year in Mathews (304), junior Lonyae Miller (113) and Harding (107). Mathews, who averages 5 yards per carry on 61 attempts, also has 4 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown.

UCLA starter Khalil Bell (6-0, 219) has been limited to just 5 carries for 11 yards this year before an injury. But Bell ran for 795 yards on 5.6 per carry last season. He’s expected to return to the field Saturday. Junior Chane Moline (6-1, 232) combined for just 17 yards in the first two games this year, before carrying 11 times for 72 yards in a loss to Arizona last week. The injury bug delivered another big blow to the Bruins this week with news that junior fullback Trevor Theriot (6-0, 239), primarily a blocker, is also out for the season. Sophomore Tobi Umodu (5-11, 230) moves atop the depth chart at fullback.
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State’s leading receiver from a year ago, junior Marlon Moore, is back. So is its leading receiver from two years ago, junior Chastin West. So is one of the nation’s top tight ends, Bear Pascoe. Yet still, the most effective playmaker of the group has been junior Seyi Ajirotutu, who burst onto the scene with a team-high 227 yards on 10 catches. Pascoe leads the team with 11 grabs, but has just 87 yards and a score. Moore has 8 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown (a 38-yarder that luckily fell into his arms after being intended for another receiver last week). And West, while flourishing as a blocker, has only 2 receptions for 9 yards. Sophomore Devon Wylie, who has 3 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, sat out the Toledo game with an injury and is in question for Saturday’s contest at UCLA. Junior Jason Crawley, though, is expected to see his first action of the season after an injury kept him out of the first three games.

The Bruins are led by junior Terrence Austin (5-11, 161), who in three games this season already has more catches (18) than he did all of last year (17). Austin leads the team with 161 yards, and sophomore Dominique Johnson (6-3, 207) is second with 118 yards on 12 grabs. Junior tight end Ryan Moya (6-3, 234) has the team’s only touchdown catch to go with 99 yards receiving on 13 receptions. Though 13 different Bruins have caught passes this year, 6 players are tied with 1 catch apiece. True freshman Taylor Embree (6-3, 186) burst onto the scene with 5 catches for 53 yards in the opening win against Tennessee but has been relatively quiet since.
Edge: Bulldogs

Offensive Line
Usually the Bulldogs rely on the guys in the trenches to control games. But so far this year, the line play has been the shakiest part of the team. A career-ending injury to All-WAC guard Cole Popovich catapulted sophomore Devan Cunningham into the starting lineup. After struggling in a loss to Wisconsin, he showed steady improvement last week. The biggest question is whether he’s in good enough shape speed-wise to pull quick enough on running plays. If Fresno State can establish a physical running attack it can run away with a victory. The team has already allowed 7 sacks, compared with 12 all of last season. One has to wonder if Adam McDowell should move back to the line after being converted to tight end earlier this season because the unit was thought to have so much depth.

UCLA’s line is in a state of flux, with inexperienced players dominating the rotation. Junior left tackle Micah Kia (6-5, 297) is the veteran presence with 11 career starts. The next most experienced starter, Micah Reed, sprained his MCL at BYU and is sidelined. Junior right tackle Nick Ekbatani (6-5, 294), sophomore left guard Darius Savage (6-4, 350) and sophomore right guard Sonny Tevaga (6-5, 339) made their first career starts in the loss to Arizona last week. Sophomore center Jake Dean (6-4, 294) started for the second time.
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Line
As if there weren’t enough concerns already with the lack of pass rush from the front four, now Fresno State is without All-WAC tackle Jon Monga – the team’s only solid interior pass rusher – for at least three games because of an injury at Toledo. Sophomore tackle Cornell Banks missed the Toledo game, and is likely out again, meaning the Bulldogs will start sophomore Mark Roberts and fill the other spot with either an end or true freshmen Logan Harrell and Chase McEntee. Harrell plunged through Toledo’s line to pressure the quarterback on a failed two-point conversion that clinched last week’s win for the Bulldogs. Junior Wilson Ramos and Ikenna Ike – the starting ends – both could see time in the interior line. If one starts on the interior, Michael Stuart is likely to fill the role at end. The Bulldogs must get more pressure on the quarterback (just 2 sacks all year).

Tackle Brigham Harwell (6-1, 280) is the Bruins’ leader as an Outland and Lombardi trophy candidate. His 21 tackles (1.5 for losses) ranks third on the team, pretty impressive for an interior lineman. Harwell will be key in stopping the Bulldogs, who love to pound it up the middle. Sophomore tackle Brian Price (6-2, 300) is also on the Lombardi watch list, but has just 6 tackles this year. Junior end Korey Bosworth (6-1, 244) has 15 tackles (2.5 for losses) and a sack on the year.
Edge: Bruins

All that early season doubt from some of the “experts” seems to have quieted with the emergence of sophomores Chris Carter and Nico Herron. Carter is second on the team with 23 tackles (1 for a loss), behind sophomore Ben Jacobs’ 28 (3 for losses), and Herron is sixth with 13 (3 for losses). Sophomore Nick Bates returned to practice this week for the first time since an injury at Rutgers in the opener. If he can go, the unit will be plenty deep with redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (8 tackles, 4 for losses) an impact player in the making. Freshman walk-on Shawn Plummer (8 tackles) has had to grow up quickly, and has done a nice job, but had a setback at Toledo with multiple missed tackles.

UCLA junior Reggie Carter (6-1, 220) is one of the nation’s top linebackers, and was named to the watch lists for the Bronco Nagurski, Ronnie Lott, Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus awards. Carter hasn’t disappointed so far this season, registering a Pac-10-best 30 tackles (2.5 for losses), including a 20-tackle performance in a 59-0 loss at BYU. Kyle Bosworth sat out the Arizona game with injury and is in question Saturday. The other two starters are inexperienced in John Hale (6-4, 227) and true freshman Sean Westgate (5-11, 202), who might make his first career start. Keep an eye out for reserve junior David Carter, the older brother of Fresno State’s Chris Carter, who has just 1 tackle this season.
Edge: Even

Defensive Backs
For as great a job as these guys do, they might be the most unheralded unit on the team. Junior strong safety Moses Harris is third on the team with 20 tackles (1 for loss) and delivered a monster blow at Toledo. Jake Jorde (19 tackles) is making it tough for Mavin Haynes (9 tackles, 2 interceptions) to win back the starting job at free safety. And over at corner, Sharrod Davis (11 tackles, 2 for losses, 5 pass breakups) has become the lockdown guy, while junior A.J. Jefferson (19 tackles) is playing like the team’s most sure tackler.

The Bruins’ secondary is led by junior corner Alterraun Verner (5-11, 177), who is on the Lott Award watch list and ranks second on the squad with 22 tackles and has an interception. Verner had 4 picks last season. Backing up Verner is Fresno-native star Courtney Viney (5-8, 150), a former Edison High star. Freshman free safety Rahim Moore (6-1, 176) has the team’s only other interception.
Edge: Bulldogs

Special Teams
Welcome back A.J. Jefferson. After leading the nation in kick returns last season, Jefferson broke it open for the first time this year at Toledo with 5 returns for 191 yards. He averages almost 32 yards per return. Redshirt freshman kicker Kevin Goessling rebounded from a 1 for 4 performance against Wisconsin to hit 2 of 3 last week, with his only miss wide from 58 yards out. Junior punter Robert Malone is ninth in the nation with 44.6 yards per punt.

Aaron Perez (6-4, 225) ranks fifth nationally and first in the Pac-10 at 46.3 yards per punt for the Bruins. Nine of his 10 boots have gone at least 50 yards, and 5 were downed inside the 20-yard line. The problem is Perez might be out-kicking his coverage, as the Bruins are giving up 19 yards per punt return. Sophomore kicker Kai Forbath (6-0, 196) was expected to be one of the country’s best, but is 3 of 5 on the year with a miss inside 30 yards and another inside 40 yards. Kick returner Terrence Austin averages 22.8 yards.
Edge: Bulldogs

Pat Hill has been rallying the troops into a frenzy – including the media – all week long about the Pac-10 shying away from games against Fresno State. The L.A. Times even picked up on the story. Hill is 1-2 all-time against UCLA, with a Silicon Valley bowl win (17-9) in 2003. Overall, Hill is 87-56.

First-year UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel owns a career record of 67-32 with previous scandal-marred stints at Colorado and Washington. He’ll turn UCLA into a winner, but asking him to do it this year might be too much. He also told media this week he’d have no problem playing a future game at Bulldog Stadium – let’s see if he measures up to that.
Edge: Even

Fresno State is 0-4 all-time at the Rose Bowl (0-6 at UCLA), with its most recent loss 24 -21 in 2000 coming after a fumbled snap. But Fresno State has been more successful than the Bruins and any other team in California besides USC in the past decade, and this is the Bulldogs’ chance to prove something. Instead of UCLA having a big home field advantage, this game is likely to be more like a bowl atmosphere with as many as 20,000 Red Wavers expected to make the trip to Pasadena. Still, the Bruins have had a horrendous two-week stretch and will be fighting their hearts out to get back on a winning track.
Edge: Even

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