Friday, September 25, 2009

Preview: Fresno State (1-2, 0-1) @ No. 14 Cincinnati (3-0, 1-0)

Edge: Bearcats
First-year starter Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) had an abysmal first half in last Friday’s 51-34 loss to then-No. 10 Boise State, throwing for just 10 yards and two interceptions. Colburn had more completions to Boise State defenders (1) than his Fresno State teammates (0) in the half. Coach Pat Hill said he considered inserting true freshman Derek Carr (6-3, 190) after halftime, but ended up sticking with the junior Colburn and it paid off. The lefty Colburn heated up and threw for 177 second-half yards and a touchdown, nearly helping the Bulldogs to a comeback. On the year, Colburn has thrown for 637 yards, 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions (55.4%). Shifty redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-0, 210) led one drive, resulting in a field goal for the team’s first points of the game. If Cincinnati defenders are overly aggressive, the Bulldogs might use Feathers to burn them for a run this week.

Cincinnati’s potent offense starts with senior Tony Pike (6-6, 225), who loves to spread the ball all over the field and has put up ridiculous numbers while doing it. Pike averages nearly 100 yards per game more than Colburn and has completed 75 of 106 passes (70.5%) for 923 yards, 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Coaches won’t hesitate to let Pike keep it in the red zone – he’s got two rushing scores on the year. In a tight 28-18 win at Oregon State last week, Pike threw for 332 yards, 2 scores and a pick. Pike was named Big East offensive player of the week after a 362-yard performance at Rutgers in the opener.

Running Backs
Edge: Bulldogs
Wow. There’s no other word to aptly describe junior Ryan Mathews’ (5-11, 220) showing on national TV last Friday, despite the loss to Boise State. Mathews did everything in his power to run the Bulldogs back into the game after an early deficit, racking up a career-high 234 yards and 3 touchdowns. Mathews leads the nation with 447 yards, and averages 9.1 per carry. His touchdowns against a vaunted Boise State defense went for 69, 60 and 68 yards, respectively. As if he’s not enough for the Bearcats to worry about, the emergence of true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) has opponents on alert. Rouse is second on the team with 174 yards (7.6 per carry). And don’t forget about seniors Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and Anthony Harding (6-0, 220). Both have gotten limited carries so far this season, but each rushed for more than 800 yards last year (Harding was the team’s leader).

Cincinnati relies much less on the run than Fresno State, but the Bearcats have a talented young back in sophomore Isaiah Pead (5-10, 193), who broke his high school’s all-time rushing mark previously held by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. Pead is second on the Bearcats with 138 yards (4.6 average) while senior Jacob Ramsey (6-0, 216) has 161 yards and an 8.1-yard average. Though Ramsey has a the team-long with a 62-yard carry, he hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown, but has two receiving. Both backs will be used in the passing game, as they’ve combined for 159 yards receiving and thee scores.
Edge: Even
Both teams have big playmakers at wide receiver, and though Cincinnati has the biggest name, Fresno State has four wideouts with more than 100 yards in just three games – junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170), senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210), senior Chastin West (6-1, 215) and senior Marlon Moore (6-1, 190). Ajirotutu leads the Bulldogs with 11 catches for 167 yards, but Wylie leads with 175 yards (17.5 per catch) – both have 2 touchdowns. West and Moore have 120 yards apiece, but Moore’s done it on just four catches (including a 92-yarder in the opener against UC Davis). Wylie had a 70-yard score at Wisconsin. Sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) is waiting in the wings and will also emerge as a big-play threat when he gets his turn. He had three receptions last week. The Bulldogs average 15.4 yards per catch as a team, compared to 12.8 by the Bearcats. Most exciting for ‘Dogs fans is the ability the receivers have shown to go up and get the ball at its high point in recent weeks.

The biggest danger the Bearcats present is senior Mardy Gilyard (6-1, 187), an All-American who had 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and leads the Bearcats with 265 yards and 4 scores this year (11.5 average) and is a candidate for several national awards. Sophomore D.J. Woods (6-0, 175) emerged last week against Oregon State with 7 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. Woods is second with 208 yards on the year, ahead of junior Armon Binns (6-4, 200), who has 179 yards and is second-best on the Bearcats with 15 receptions. Pike has spread the ball around to 14 different players, including junior tight end Ben Guidugli (6-0, 237), who has 5 catches for 49 yards.
Offensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs
For the second straight week, the Bulldogs allowed two sacks in a game, and face their stiffest challenge on Saturday morning against a 3-4 blitzing defense from Cincinnati. The Bulldogs’ scout team has been emulating the Bearcats’ blitz looks this week to prepare for the battle in the trenches, but Fresno State matches up better against bigger defensive fronts than faster, more athletic ones. Credit Fresno State’s line for opening up running lanes for Mathews and Rouse last week and helping propel the Bulldogs to No. 4 in the nation among rushing offenses. Junior right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) will be the best lineman on the field.

The Bearcats have a stable line that returned three starters from last season and found two new starters who have been set in their positions each game this year while the unit has allowed just two sacks. The two linemen Cincinnati lost from last season are the only offensive starters who didn’t return this year. It starts with senior left tackle John Linkenbach (6-6, 311), senior center Chris Jurek (6-2, 286) and junior left guard Jason Kelce (6-4, 290), who have 49 career starts combined. Keep an eye on junior left tackle Samuel Griffin (6-4, 260), who is greatly undersized but might have an easier time keeping up with Fresno State’s speedy ends than Linkenbach.
Defensive Line
Edge: Even
Junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230) has blossomed into a fierce pass rusher for the Bulldogs, despite an obscenely large cast on his left hand resulting from an injury in the Wisconsin game. Carter’s owns the team’s only two sacks of the season, leads the team with 3 tackles for loss and was in Boise State’s backfield all night last Friday. How often and how quick he and fellow end, sophomore Kenny Borg (6-3, 245), can get in Pike’s face on Saturday might determine the outcome of this game. With the secondary as Fresno State’s biggest concern, it’s all the more important the Bulldogs force Pike into pressure decisions with defensive line play. Junior tackle Chris Lewis (6-3, 260) is on the verge of a breakout season if he keeps up the intensity – which was his problem area in past seasons. Fresno State could sorely use a better pass rush from the interior linemen.

When a defense gives up an average of just 12 points per game as Cincinnati’s has, no one’s going to have a ton of tackles. But senior end Alex Daniels (6-4, 259) is tied for second on the team with 15. The team has a ridiculous 32 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Senior end Ricardo Mathews (6-3, 294) leads the Bearcats with 4.5 tackles for loss and is second with 2.5 sacks. The Bearcats surely saw game film of Fresno State using the draw against Boise State last week and will have to be ready for it if they’re in the Bulldogs’ backfield early.
Edge: Bearcats
Sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) had one of the biggest hits of the season for Fresno State on Friday, when he blasted a gap and met Boise State running back D.J. Harper head on, unfortunately ending Harper’s season with a knee injury. But it was the type of good, clean hit the Bulldogs need from their linebackers to keep Bearcats’ receivers from getting too comfortable in space. All-WAC junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) leads the team with 25 tackles after recording 113 last season, and has 2 tackles for loss. Junior Nico Herron (6-3, 240) had little impact last week after a big start to the season, and may see less time in favor of reserve sophomore Shawn Plummer (6-0, 200), a former walk-on who offers more speed.

The Bearcats defense has been surprisingly strong after losing 10 starters from a season ago, and the leading tackler is senior Andre Revels (6-0, 221) with 21. Redshirt freshman Walter Stewart (6-5, 226) made his first start at Oregon State in place of Curtis Young, who was lost for the season with injury. Stewart had 4 tackles, 2.5 for losses and forced a fumble – he leads the team with 3 sacks. Sophomore J.K. Schaffer (6-1, 223) has two interceptions.
Defensive Backs
Edge: Bearcats
Fresno State faces a tall task with junior safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200) still out with injury – not just because he’s established himself as the defense’s hardest hitter and on-field leader, but because his replacements struggled last week. Senior Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205) fills in with two-plus years of starting experience but dropped a wide-open, would-be interception against Boise State that was right in his hands with the Bulldogs trailing by only seven points in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Zak Hill (6-0, 200), Pat Hill’s son, was an even bigger liability in his first significant game action, being caught out of position and outrun for two big plays last week. The Bulldogs could benefit from sliding redshirt freshman Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205) into that spot for pass coverage on Saturday. While Thomas lacks the experience to lead the defense like Bell, he’s got the talent to be one of the WAC’s best. Junior corner Desia Dunn (5-9, 190) has to improve his awareness, especially if he matches up with Gilyard so senior A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) can cover the taller Binns.

The Bearcats have seven interceptions on the year, compared to Fresno State’s one, but their secondary faces its biggest challenge with the number of skilled receivers that will be on the field and rotating in and out to keep fresh. Senior safety Aaron Webster (6-2, 211) is tied for the team lead with two picks, while redshirt freshman safety Drew Frey (6-4, 205) is coming off his best game with 12 tackles in the win at Oregon State. Frey played in four games last season before an arm injury forced him to take a medical redshirt. Webster is the team’s lone returning starter from a year ago, when he finished with 60 tackles and a pick.
Special Teams
Edge: Even
Forget how good the Bulldogs have been in the past decade blocking kicks. Forget how good A.J. Jefferson, Devon Wylie, Chastin West and Marlon Moore have been returning kicks and punts. The kick coverage has been flat out poor. And special teams coach John Baxter needs to do something about it – stubbornness doesn’t win ballgames. The Bulldogs were burned more than ever under Hill for big returns last season, and the trend seems to have carried over, as Boise State had two different players with 77-yard returns, and a long punt return that was called back on a penalty. Fresno State can’t afford to put its defense in bad field position and expect to win big games.

Mardy Gilyard earned Big East special teams player of the year honors last season. Think he can repeat? Gilyard’s 53-yard punt return for a touchdown against Southeast Missouri State ended a 12-year drought without a punt return score for the Bearcats. To put that into perspective, consider the Bulldogs returned three punts for touchdowns just last season (with three different players). Gilyard averages a modest 20 yards per kick return, but the Bulldogs can’t afford to take risk with him. Junior Jake Rogers is just 1 of 2 on field goals this season, with a long of 30 yards. Freshman punter Patrick O’Donnell (6-5, 210) averages only 37.9 yards, giving Fresno State a big edge in the kicking game but it’s evened out in coverage.
Edge: Bearcats
It’s hard to pick against Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly right now after he led the Bearcats to a BCS bowl last season and an all-time high No. 12 final ranking. He’s got the team ranked 14th right now, and has national media even talking about national championship possibilities – unheard of at the school that’s had back-to-back 10-win seasons after having just one previous 10-win season in its history (1951). But don’t forget, it’s the type of big-time non-conference game Pat Hill and his players live for, and after a 1-2 start with a team this talented, they’re hungry. Still, Fresno State has lost its past 10 games against ranked teams.

Edge: Even
A week after Fresno State wore its all-Bulldog Red uniforms during a “white-out” of Bulldog Stadium in which the visitor wore all white uniforms, Cincinnati is doing it right with the Bearcats wearing all white to match their fans. Fresno State will wear the Bulldog Reds. The Bulldogs let a lesser Wisconsin team sneak back in the game and steal a win at Camp Randall two weeks ago and now find themselves in danger of falling to 1-3 with another loss. With a team that’s proven to lack the mental toughness to bounce back in the past, that’s a big risk. Though Cincinnati is a BCS-conference opponent, 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium is smaller than the Bulldogs’ home. From Cincinnati’s perspective, a win is a must to keep national title dreams alive.
***Photos courtesy of Juan Villa

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.