Friday, October 23, 2009

Preview: Fresno State (3-3, 2-1) @ New Mexico State (3-4, 1-2)

Edge: Bulldogs
Fresno State has to be pleased with first-year starter Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220), who’s bounced back from an interception-laden start to boost himself to 26th in the nation in pass efficiency. Since throwing an interception that cost the Bulldogs the game at Cincinnati, Colburn is 23 of 32 for 267 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in two-plus games. For the year, the junior lefty now has 1,027 yards, 11 scores and seven interceptions. The biggest thing missing in the past two games has been the ability to take over a game with the deep ball – something Colburn proved his capable of at Wisconsin. Expect redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-0, 210) to keep increasing in playing time now that the Bulldogs are in the midst of conference play against lesser defenses. Feathers threw his first-career touchdown pass (4 yards) in last week’s 41-21 win over San Jose State, and also scampered for 16 yards on a keeper. If all goes according to how it should on paper, true freshman Derek Carr should get reps for the third straight Saturday.

Gone for New Mexico State is Chase Holbrook. Two new faces are see-sawing to fill his shoes. Though Holbrook was vastly overrated last season in the media, his replacements have fallen short in redshirt freshman Trevor Walls (6-5, 220) and sophomore Jeff Fleming (6-4, 195). Walls is slated as the starter for Saturday with 340 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions with a 52% completion rate. Fleming is the more versatile option with 38 rushing attempts, but has just 62 yards to show for it. Fleming also leads the Aggies with 446 yards passing and has two scores and two picks on 53% completions. Don’t be surprised if the Aggies rotate throughout the game, as coach Dwayne Walker likes to go with the “hot hand.” Walls is coming off his best game, completing 10 of 12 passes against Louisisana Tech, but the Aggies mustered only seven points.

Running Backs
Edge: Bulldogs
Fresno State’s rushing gauntlet poses big, big trouble for New Mexico State. Junior Ryan Mathews’ (5-11, 220) seldom-seen talent is no longer a secret kept by the most knowledgeable Red Wavers – now the whole nation knows about him and his NCAA-best 974 yards, 162.3 yards per game and 7.4 yards per carry. There’s even a little Heisman hype bubbling up with an already special season. With 233 yards last week against San Jose State, Mathews jumped from 11th on the all-time school rushing list to fifth – just ahead of 16-year NFL star Lorenzo Neal. Mathews’ seven touchdowns give him 29 in his career – tied for second all-time in the Bulldogs’ record book, and his sixth-straight 100-yard performance last week set a new school record. Factor in true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) and his 329 yards (8 per carry) and four touchdowns, and senior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and his 211 yards (6 per carry) and two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs have what might be the best backfield in the nation. And that’s before factoring in senior Anthony Harding (6-0, 220), who has 1,433 career yards and 11 touchdowns. With the success of Fresno State’s other three backs this year, Harding (who led the team in rushing last season) has just 10 carries for 21 yards in 2009.

Running hasn’t been New Mexico State’s forte in recent history, but the Aggies rely more than usual on the ground game this year. Redshirt junior Seth Smith (5-8, 198) has battled for 598 yards and a touchdown while averaging a casual 4.2 yards per attempt. Last season, the Aggies finished with minus-15 rushing yards against a Fresno State defense that ranked among the nation’s worst at defending the run. Since 2002, just two Aggies have rushed for more than 700 yards. Smith, a transfer from College of the Sequoias located about 45 minutes south of Fresno, had a career-high 150 yards on 25 carries in a win over Prairie View A&M, and also went for 113 in a victory over winless New Mexico. Senior Tonny Glynn (5-8, 192) is third on the Aggies with 107 yards and a score (3.5 yards per carry).

Edge: Bulldogs
Bulldogs senior Marlon Moore (6-1, 190) shined with two touchdowns last week after keeping a low profile since his 92-yard catch and run in the season opener. Moore has scored nearly half the times he’s caught the ball – three touchdowns, seven receptions. Bad news for the ‘Dogs last week was losing junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170) midway through the game to injury. Wylie hasn’t been ruled out for Saturday’s contest, but expect the coaches to keep him sidelined unless he’s 100%. Wylie has a team-high four scores, and is second with 242 receiving yards. Senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210) leads the ‘Dogs with 292 yards and 21 catches. With senior Chastin West (6-1, 215) at 152 yards and Moore at 149, sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) will become the fifth wideout to go over 100 yards with his next catch – he’s got 99 yards on the year.

It’s hard to tell who New Mexico State misses most – Holbrook or the receivers he threw to last season. Tiny sophomore Todd Lee (5-9, 155) leads the Aggies with 208 yards and a touchdown, but averages just 11.6 yards per catch. He’s joined by tiny, experienced senior Marcus Anderson (5-8, 166) and junior Marcus Allen (6-0, 190). Allen is second on the team with 195 yards and Anderson has 145 and a touchdown. But no one in the receiving corps has emerged as a big-play threat, with Allen’s 34-yard long the team-high.

Offensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs
Heading into this season, the line was thought to be questionable in pass protection. That proved not to be the case at all as the ‘Dogs headed into the San Jose State game with the eighth-fewest sacks allowed. But the Spartans sacked Colburn three times, running the season total sacks by opponents to eight. Keep in mind, at least one of those three against San Jose State was blown protection by the running back on a blitz scheme. With first-year starters at both tackle positions in Kenny Wiggins (6-7, 310) and Bryce Harris (6-6, 295), this unit is already better than last season’s at Fresno State. Proof is in the 6.1 yards per carry the Bulldogs average as a team.

Consider that number is almost double the 3.3 yards per carry New Mexico State averages behind a mostly large, veteran group that has given up 12 sacks in seven games – two of which were allowed by senior reserve Joe Suder (6-5, 346) who replaced starting senior right tackle David Norman (6-4, 300) when he missed two games with injury. Senior left guard Joe Palmer (6-3, 308) leads the Aggies with 46 knockdowns. It’ll be interesting to see how junior left tackle Dwayne Barton (6-4, 270) matches up with the pass rush from Fresno State’s Chris Carter, who is used to overwhelming larger opponents with his speed around the edge. Barton’s lack of size might actually be an advantage in this instance.

Defensive Line
Edge: Even
Fresno State junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230) is the only Bulldog to provide a dependable pass rush with a team-leading four sacks. Finally, last week, a second Bulldog recorded a sack when sophomore tackle Logan Harrell (6-2, 275) handed San Jose State a 14-yard loss. But this unit is still far too inconsistent with its pressure, and has trouble finishing when it does apply pressure. If they can make the Aggies’ quarterbacks feel the heat, the Bulldogs can take advantage of mistakes and dominate. They held the Aggies to minus-15 yards rushing last season, but face a new running back this time. The Bulldogs have given up 5.2 yards per carry to opponents on the year.
New Mexico State sophomore end Pierre Fils (6-3, 230) recorded his fifth sack of the season two weeks ago in a win over Utah State. Fils alone has as many sacks as Fresno State does as a team – albeit against much lesser competition. Sophomore end Donte Savage (6-1, 229) has applied nearly as much pressure from the other side, with four sacks and a team-high seven tackles for losses. The Aggies have given up 5.1 yards per carry to opposing running backs, despite facing just two team with decent ground games (Idaho and Louisiana Tech) – neither nearly as strong as Fresno State’s.

Edge: Bulldogs
An injury to junior Nico Herron (6-3, 240) halfway through last week’s game gave highly-touted true freshman Travis Brown (6-2, 235) a chance for significant playing time. Brown recorded just one tackle, and Herron is expected back this week. Junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) leads the Bulldogs with 40 tackles (3 for losses) and also has an interception, two pass breakups and three deflections. Fresno State needs to get sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) more involved in the pass rush, as he excels at getting to the backfield and making big hits.

Senior middle linebacker Jason Scott (5-10, 207) leads New Mexico State with 62 tackles (1.5 for losses), and is followed by senior strong linebacker Ross Conner (5-10, 212) and his 56 tackles. Mathews, Rouse and company will be in the second and third level of the Aggies’ defense often, and how long they can stay in the game will hinge on how well the linebackers tackle.

Defensive Backs
Edge: Bulldogs
Fresno State is coming off its most impressive secondary performance of the season, as junior Desia Dunn (5-9, 190) turned in his second consecutive lockdown performance with four tackles and two breakups. Dunn leads the Bulldogs with six breakups and six deflections on the year. Senior Damion Owens (5-11, 200) has also looked strong the past two weeks, coming up with key deflections. And a couple youngsters got in on the action against the Spartans when sophomore Isaiah Green (5-10, 180) broke up a possible touchdown pass deep downfield, and redshirt freshman Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 180) snatched the Bulldogs’ fourth interception of the season in the fourth quarter.
The Aggies aren’t do any better in the interception department. They also have four on the year, one each by junior corner Davon House (6-0, 172), junior free safety Stephon Hatchett (5-8, 170) and junior strong safety Alphonso Powell (5-9, 182). The safeties are abnormally small, considering both starting corners – House and sophomore Jonte Green (6-0, 175) – have substantially more height. Hatchett is third on the team with 44 tackles, and Powell is fourth with 41. Mathews loves to talk about creating one-on-one situations against safeties in the open field, and these two will be susceptible to his powerful stiff-arms.

Special Teams
Edge: Bulldogs
Wow is the keyword for senior punter Robert Malone (6-2, 225) after he booted a 69-yard punt last Saturday. With more attempts, Malone would be one of the nation’s leaders – he’s averaging 47.7 yards per punt and has placed 1/3 of his attempts inside the 20-yard line with just two touchbacks. Fresno State also picked up another blocked punt against San Jose State, giving it 82 blocks in the Pat Hill era. And sophomore kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190) nailed field goals from 40 and 46 yards. Goessling is 7 of 8 on the year, and has converted 14 of his past 16 attempts dating to last season.

The Aggies’ Kyle Hughes (6-0, 184) assumes the punting duties and most of the field goal kicking as well. Hughes averages 42.4 yards on 37 punts this season, placing nine inside the 20. But the sophomore lacks accuracy beyond 40 yards on field goal attempts, hitting just 2 of 5 from that distance. He’s 5 of 8 overall on the year.

Edge: Bulldogs
New Mexico State’s Dwayne Walker is in his first year after spending the past three seasons as UCLA’s defensive coordinator. Pat Hill and Fresno State beat his Bruins team at the Rose Bowl last season, and he has far less talent with the Aggies. But the fact Walker has already won three games this year is an accomplishment considering the lack of talent in the program.

Edge: Bulldogs
Though there’s a lot to be said for New Mexico State keeping the past three series meetings within seven points or less, Fresno State has never lost to the Aggies in 15 match-ups. Under Hill, the Bulldogs are 4-0 against New Mexico State, with two wins at Aggie Memorial Stadium (30-23 in the last meeting). The ‘Dogs are 8-0 all-time in games played in Las Cruces.
***Photos courtesy of Juan Villa

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