Thursday, September 17, 2009

Preview: No. 10 Boise State (2-0) @ Fresno State (1-1)

Edge: Broncos
Junior Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) answered a lot of questions about Fresno State’s offense with his performance at Wisconsin Saturday – 22 of 36 for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns – but also left a few unanswered with three interceptions that likely kept the Bulldogs from winning. That said, the game plan made it obvious that coaches are more confident in the passing game than they have been the past three years, as the offense opened up and the deep ball was thrown regularly. Execution will be the biggest key to beating Boise State on Friday, but Colburn seems like the type of kid who will build upon his first-career road start, and he might very well finish the year as one of the WAC’s top quarterbacks. It’s doubtful true freshman Derek Carr (6-3, 190) will enter the game as long as Colburn’s healthy, but look for an increased presence from redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-0, 210), who’s change-of-pace ability was used for just two plays last week.

Though sophomore Kellen Moore (6-0, 187) is younger than Colburn, he’s more experienced after leading the Broncos to a 12-1 season in 2008 and setting a new NCAA record for completion percentage by a freshman (69.4%). Moore, who like Colburn is a lefty, was a Freshman All-American and second-team All-WAC selection after throwing for 3,486 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Moore defined efficiency in last season’s 61-10 debacle over the Bulldogs, completing 17 of 23 passes (74%). This is a week where Fresno State probably won’t get away with not forcing at least one turnover – otherwise Boise State will peck away all night.

Running Backs
Edge: Even
A healthy Ryan Mathews (5-11, 220) has proved to be as close to unstoppable as college running backs get. Even when he was being contained at Wisconsin, it was just a matter of time before he broke a big play – and it came with a 55-yard run in the third quarter. The junior has rushed for more than 100 yards each game this season, but hasn’t yet had success against Boise State. Mathews had 15 carries for 49 yards as a true freshman, and didn’t play last season due to injury. If the line blocks well, he could be the X-factor. True freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) is quickly becoming a major concern for opponents. In his first two career games he’s got 121 yards and a score on 7.6 per carry. The Bulldogs haven’t seen near what’s expected of seniors Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) yet, though Hardings has just one carry so far.

Boise State has small, quick running backs – the polar opposite of what Fresno State faced at Wisconsin last week – and it’s exactly what gives the Bulldogs trouble. For all the hype that surrounded now-departed Ian Johnson, juniors Jeremy Avery (5-9, 173) and D.J. Harper (5-9, 198) present far more danger to Fresno State’s defense. Avery had seven carries for 62 yards (8.9 average) against the Bulldogs last season and 124 yards and three scores on 18 carries in 2007 at Bulldog Stadium. In that same game, Harper led the Broncos with 153 yards. The good news for the Bulldogs is they have a much more aggressive defense than a year ago, but this will be the ultimate test. Senior fullback Richie Brockel (6-2, 240) is the type of road-paver typically found in the Bulldogs’ backfield, and a guy who could be playing on Sundays next year.

Edge: Bulldogs
Can you say breakout? Fresno State’s wideouts put on a show for a national TV audience last week, and were led by junior speedster Devon Wylie (5-9, 170), who had a career-high 114 yards on five catches, including a 70-yard strike where he shifted to an extra gear and burned Wisconsin’s corner. Senior Chastin West (6-1, 215) had perhaps the best game of his career last week with five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. But it was the situation he made the catches in that made them so impressive, third downs and great plays. West would have had the potential game-winner in double overtime when he beat the corner by six yards in the end zone, but was underthrown. Senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210) had six receptions for 82 yards and two touchdowns. The wideout weapons are many, but the Bulldogs might need more involvement from their tight ends this week if Colburn faces more pressure, which is likely.

Boise State sophomore tight end Kyle Efaw (6-4, 229) will be a weapon for the Broncos. He’s got the hands and ability to squat in pockets of zone coverage that can hurt the Bulldogs. Efaw led Boise State with 60 yards on two catches in last year’s win over Fresno State. The Broncos, however, aren’t as deep at wideout as they have been in recent years. But the two go-to receivers are two of the best they’ve had in juniors Titus Young (5-11, 170) and Austin Pettis (6-3, 201). In two games this year, Pettis has 10 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns, while Young has 11 grabs for 160 yards and two scores. Pettis hauled in a career-high 65-yarder last week in a win over Miami (Ohio).

Offensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs
Fresno State’s big men on the gridiron have been a pleasant surprise. Some doubt remained after they dominated UC Davis in the opener with two new starters, but little doubt is there after their performance at Wisconsin. While the unit allowed two sacks, the pass blocking was obscenely strong on numerous plays. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema reportedly called junior center Joe Bernardi (6-2, 280) and junior right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) two of the best linemen he’s seen on film. Both have been doing a stellar job of getting to the second level on blocks. But Boise State presents a tougher challenge – can the unit hold strong against a smaller, quicker Broncos front? The Bulldogs, who are perennially among the nation’s leaders for fewest sacks allowed, have given up five sacks to the Broncos in the past two meetings.

Boise State’s line is lean and quick, another polar opposite compared to the behemouths up front for Wisconsin. The Broncos don’t have a single lineman weighing more than 300 pounds – with junior left guard Will Lawrence (6-2, 293) the biggest. The Broncos gave up a WAC-low 13 sacks last season, but has a relatively inexperienced unit with just two full-time starters returning in sophomore center Thomas Byrd (5-11, 284) and junior right guard Kevin Sapien (6-4, 286) – and even they have just one year of starting under their belts. Keep an eye on Byrd’s exchange with the quarterback, which the Broncos have had some trouble with this year – but they always seem to clean up the mistakes against Fresno State.

Defensive Line
Edge: Broncos
Junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230) has taken his game up another notch and emerged as a serious threat to Fresno State opponents. Carter’s speed presented a huge mismatch against Wisconsin’s bigger, slower linemen, and allowed him to get around the edge twice for hard-hitting sacks. On a near-sack in the first quarter last week, Carter reportedly broke his middle finger, but is expected to play on Friday. Redshirt sophomore Kenny Borg (6-3, 245) also caused problems with his speed at end last week, but didn’t have the same impact. Look for the Bulldogs to use junior Chris Lewis (6-3, 260) for more reps at tackle this week, as his size is more appropriate against Boise State’s smaller, quicker guys. The same holds true for sophomore tackle Logan Harrell (6-2, 275), who showed flashes of agility against Wisconsin. Defensively, this is likely where the game will be won or lost for Fresno State – the only way to force Boise State out of its usual near-perfect execution is to apply constant pressure in the backfield.

Boise State’s defense boasts one of the most ridiculous stats ever – in the past 12 games, the defense has allowed just 8.25 offensive points per game. It starts with the front four and is the biggest reason for the Broncos’ increased success of late against strong competition (see Oregon). Somewhere along the line, the Broncos developed not only skill in the front four, but also size, with starting ends junior Ryan Winterswyk (6-4, 263) and sophomore Jarrell Root (6-3, 259). Winterswyk, a first-team All-WAC honoree who’s up for the Lott Trophy and Lombardi Award, had 11.5 tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks last season. But more impressively, he had six pass deflections, something that has caused Fresno State fits in recent years with passes being batted down by linemen. Sophomore tackles Billy Winn (6-4, 288) and Chase Baker (6-1, 296) each have 0.5 sacks on the young season, but overall the Broncos’ starting for is lacking in the experience department.

Edge: Bulldogs
The play of middle backer Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) is getting to be ridiculous. With his speed improved a tad, and a more physical mentality, Jacobs has already racked up 21 tackles this season, after leading Fresno State with 113 last year. First-team All-WAC here he comes. Still, the biggest plus so far this year might be junior strong side Nico Herron (6-3, 240), who had a 94-yard interception return for a touchdown in the opener and is third on the team with 11 tackles after showing much improvement in sticking to his assignments. If sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) steps up his play this will be the WAC’s best linebacker trio.

Look for the Broncos to go with a 4-2-5 defense often, consisting of just two linebackers instead of the normal three. The best of those two is junior Derrell Acrey (6-1, 235), who was fifth on the team with 59 tackles last season. Sophomore Aaron Tevis (6-3, 228) enters his first season as the full-time starter on the weak side. Both linebackers have a knack for getting to the ball and not missing, part of what makes Boise State so tough to drive the ball on. Redshirt freshman J.C. Percy (6-0, 214) is pushing hard for playing time, as he’s tied with Acrey and one other for third on the team with eight tackles this season. Tevis has two picks already on the season.

Defensive Backs
Edge: Broncos
Fresno State received sad news Wednesday that starting free safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200) is out the next two weeks with a knee injury. The junior is a physical specimen and the biggest reason the Bulldogs seem to have rediscovered that “Shutup & Hit Somebody” mentality. He delivered at least three bell-ringing blows in the first two games and was scary on the blitz – while posting 13 tackles. Instead Boise State will face either senior Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205), who has two-plus years of starting experience, or sophomore Zak Hill (6-2, 200), Pat Hill’s youngest son. It’s a head-scratcher, though, why Hill wouldn’t start redshirt freshman Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205), who opened fall camp first-string and might be the defense’s next big thing. Expect senior corner A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) to draw Pettis, while junior Desia Dunn (5-9, 190) tries to stick with Young. Senior All-WAC strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) will also be used on the blitz under Randy Stewart’s more aggressive defensive playcalling, but must be sure to shed blocks if he’s going to be effective – an area he’s struggled with in the past.

There’s not a better secondary in the WAC, and its best corner is Boise State senior and All-America candidate Kyle Wilson (5-10, 186), but he’ll be outsized by most Fresno State receivers, especially the team’s best deep threat, Ajirotutu at 6-foot-4. Junior corner Brandyn Thompson (5-10, 180) faces the same battle, as does junior nickel back Winston Venable (5-11, 233). Wilson tied for the WAC lead with five interceptions last season and has eight for his career. He also leads the Broncos with 10 tackles this year. At the starting safety spots, Boise State boasts junior Jeron Johnson (5-11, 194) and sophomore George Iloka (6-3, 207). Johnson led the squad with 98 tackles and had three picks in 2008. Both he and Iloka have a pick already this year. Iloka had four interceptions in 2008.

Special Teams
Edge: Bulldogs
This game pits easily the two best special teams units in the WAC, and both have been among the nation’s best this decade. Fresno State has blocked 80 kicks and punts during Pat Hill’s tenure, which began in 1997. The emphasis the Bulldogs put on special teams is unparalleled, and it pays off as four current players have returned kicks or punts for touchdowns – Jefferson, West, Moore and Rashad Evans (who’s redshirting). Senior punter Robert Malone (6-2, 225) averages 46.4 yards and has placed 3 of 5 punts inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190), who’s on the Lou Groza watch list, hit a 41-yarder to send last week’s game into overtime, but also missed a 45-yard attempt earlier in the game.

Boise State has a heck of a return man itself in Wilson, who returned a punt 90 yards for a Boise State record-long touchdown against the Bulldogs last year. He averaged 14.2 yards per return with three touchdowns last season. The Broncos also blocked a punt last week in a win over Miami (Ohio). Junior Kyle Brotzman (5-10, 201) handles kicking and punting duties. He was 17 of 26 on field goals last season, but 2 of 2 from 50-plus yards, but is just 1 of 3 this season including a miss from 29 yards. Brotzman averages 45.3 yards per punt, and has pinned 3 of 6 inside the 20.

Edge: Broncos
How can the edge not go to Chris Petersen here? No matter how lovable Pat Hill’s vision and passion for Bulldog football and the Valley is, he just can’t seem to out-scheme Petersen on the field often enough, despite having more talent on paper pretty much every year the two teams have played. Petersen has discovered the secret to getting kids to execute to near-perfection throughout a season, and does it consistently. It’s a phenomenon no other coach or program in the nation experiences. At USC, Oklahoma and Florida, they win perennially based on exorbitant amounts of talent. With Boise State, no one can really explain why the Broncos win so often in such convincing fashion? Boise State is 7-4 all-time against the Bulldogs, and its only loss in the rivalry since joining the WAC in 2001 was 27-7 at Bulldog Stadium in 2005.

Edge: Broncos
There’s a ton of hype coming in with Boise State ranked No. 10, the second straight year a 10th-ranked team has visited Bulldog Stadium (Wisconsin last year). The Red Wave is being asked to “white out” the stadium, and the game is a near sellout – making for by far the most hostile environment Boise State will face on the road this season. But this Broncos team won at Oregon last year – its first-ever road win over a BCS-conference opponent – and always gets up to play Fresno State. Still, the mental hurdle of losing to Boise State so often in recent years will be tough to overcome. And until Fresno State pulls it off, it’s tough to pick the ‘Dogs to win it.

***Photos courtesy of Juan Villa

1 comment:

  1. Wow, was my preview just THAT good this week that no one disagrees with anything? Or is no one reading it because it's roughly the length of an opus?


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