Friday, October 30, 2009

Preview: Utah State (2-5, 1-2) @ Fresno State (4-3, 2-1)

Edge: Aggies

Now more than ever, Fresno State coaches have to be questioning if they’ve got the right Bulldog starting under center. Junior lefty Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) hasn’t looked capable of winning a game with the pass since Wisconsin – and even that one the Bulldogs lost on a Colburn interception in overtime. While Colburn’s leadership skills, poise and Bulldog spirit are unquestionable, his first half showing this past Saturday at New Mexico State won’t cut it against tougher competition. Colburn fumbled early before throwing a poor pass that was intercepted in the end zone, and he was nearly picked off again at the goal line moments later. It was a surprising series of mistakes considering Colburn was coming off two straight ultra-efficient starts with no turnovers. For the year, he’s passed for 1,191 yards (59%), 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. True freshman Derek Carr (6-3, 190) continues to impress. Carr was 4 of 6 in the fourth quarter at New Mexico State, and is 10 of 14 (71%) for 112 yards on the season.

Utah State counters with one of the WAC’s less known quarterbacks, but also one of its most dangerous – especially to a team like Fresno State with a history of trouble defending scrambler. Junior Diondre Borel (6-0, 187) was known mostly for his running ability last season when he had 12 carries for 74 yards and a score against the Bulldogs, but this season has thrown for 1,681 yards, 10 touchdowns and just 1 interception. The downside? Borel has completed just 57% of his throws. But that’s not as glaring a weakness when he has run for 237 yards and 4 touchdowns. Borel nearly doubled the Aggies’ single-season rushing mark for a quarterback with 632 yards last season, and was one of seven quarterbacks nationwide to lead their teams in passing and rushing.

Running Backs
Edge: Bulldogs

It’s official – the Ryan Mathews Heisman Trophy/Doak Walker Award campaign is under way with an official Web site and T-shirts. For the fourth straight week, Mathews leads the nation in rushing with 1,131 yards on a whopping 7.2 per carry. He has nine touchdowns this season – giving him 29 for his career – with is just three from the Fresno State career record of 32 by Anthony Daigle. Mathews 161.7 rushing yards per game is nearly 26 yards more than his closest competitor, Darius Marshall of Marshall (136 per game). And Mathews’ 157-yard showing at New Mexico State last week propelled him past Dale Messer for fourth in school history in career yardage – just 80 yards behind NFL back Dwayne Wright (2003-04, 06). Whew – got all that? Well here’s one more superlative – Mathews has seven runs this season of more than 50 yards (69, 68, 68, 60, 59, 58, 55). Once opponents have focused on how to slow Mathews, they also have to concern themselves with elusive true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) and senior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220). Rouse has 344 yards and four touchdowns, while averaging slightly more yards per carry than Mathews at 7.6. And Miller has added 213 yards and two scores on 5.5 per carry. The Bulldogs’ leading rusher in 2008, senior Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) presents more danger if he gets carries, but with the standout play of the other three backs, Harding has just 10 carries for 21 yards this season. In last season’s 30-28 win over Utah State, Mathews was hobbled by injury and carried 14 times for just 58 yards. Miller led the team with 67 yards on 12 rushes.

With all the talk about the special batch of Bulldogs backs, don’t ignore Utah State sophomore Robert Turbin (5-10, 212), who is second in the WAC and tied for 18th nationally with 104.9 rushing yards per game. Turbin has run for 734 yards (6.5 per carry) and four touchdowns against a schedule that included Texas A&M, Utah and BYU. He had a career-high 148 yards in a loss to Utah when he sprinted 96 yards for a touchdown on one run. Turbin had just five carries for 13 yards last season against the Bulldogs, but has matured significantly since. He’s also a factor in the passing game, as he’s second on the Aggies with 270 yards receiving and a team-high three receiving touchdowns. Borel is second on the team in rushing, followed by junior Michael Smith (5-9, 199) with 187 yards and two scores.

Edge: Bulldogs

It’s become obvious senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210) has become a big-time wideout for the Bulldogs. While Ajirotutu served mainly as the deep threat last season, he’s become more of a possession guy this year and greatly improved his hands. Ajirotutu leads the deep group of ‘Dogs wideouts with 24 catches for 356 yards. Junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170) is second with 15 grabs for 242 yards and a team-high four touchdowns, despite missing the last game with injury. Wylie’s absence hurt Fresno State’s offense even more than expected, as the Bulldogs failed to capitalize on one-on-one match-ups with receivers and defensive backs on the outside as New Mexico State sold out to try and stop the run. If Wylie can play Saturday, it will be a huge boost for the Bulldogs. Sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) saw an increased role with Wylie sidelined, catching three passes for a career-high 63 yards, including a 51-yard, bobbling over-the-shoulder grab.

Fresno State defenders will have their hands full with Utah State’s receiving corps, while also spying the quarterback and trying to defend the run. The multi-faceted ability of the Aggies’ offense is what’s made them so much more competitive this season, despite the poor record. Sophomore Stanley Morrison (5-9, 162) is small but capable with a team-leading 434 yards (16.7 per catch) and two scores. And Utah State has plenty more weapons in senior Omar Sawyer (5-9, 174), junior Eric Moats (6-0, 173), senior Nnamdi Gwacham (6-3, 211) and senior Xavier Bowman (6-3, 204). Gwacham has 230 yards (16.4 per catch), Sawyer has 204, Moats 178 and Bowman 112.

Offensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs

Junior center Joey Bernardi (6-2, 280) left with injury during the New Mexico State game, and the Bulldogs had a couple close calls with inaccurate snaps in shotgun formation while senior Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285) filled in. Pacheco has plenty of experience though, and the Bulldogs won’t miss a beat as long as that problem is shored up. A lot of the credit for Fresno State’s 266.7 yards rushing per game (fifth nationally) and 5.9 per carry goes to the offensive line. However, opponents have been more successful pressuring the quarterback the past three games, as the Bulldogs have now given up 10 sacks on the year.

Still, those numbers seem excellent compared with the 20 sacks given up by Utah State this season – which can only be good news for a Bulldogs team that struggles to get to the opposing quarterback. Utah State averages 180.7 rushing yards, ranking fourth in the WAC and 32nd in the country. The lone senior of the group is center Brennan McFadden (6-2, 295).

Defensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State has shown signs of growth amongst the interior in recent weeks, with junior Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) picking up his first sack at New Mexico State and sophomore Logan Harrell (6-2, 275) collecting one the week before. Junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230), with four sacks, is the only Bulldog to record more than one. Problem is, Carter hasn’t gotten one since the Hawaii game three weeks ago. He leads the ‘Dogs with six tackles for losses. On the bright side, the Bulldogs are coming off their best defensive performance of the season, where they were swarming to the ball carriers and laying some nasty hits.

Utah State’s two-deep is made up entirely of sophomores and juniors – only one of which has a sack this year. That man is sophomore end Junior Keiaho (6-3, 242), who has a team-best two sacks. The group is extremely undersized at tackle with juniors Sean Enesi (5-10, 275) and Nathan Royster (6-0, 262). Opponents average 197.4 yards per game on the ground.

Edge: Even

Has junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) ever looked more dominant than he did last Saturday? The short answer – no. Jacobs leads the ‘Dogs with 53 tackles – 20 more than the closest teammate – and is second with five tackles for losses. He’s vastly improved in pass coverage this season, and is visibly faster to the ball – making his love for hitting more dangerous to the guys in his path. The other two starters have been very similar, as junior Nico Herron (6-3, 240) and sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) each have 23 tackles (1.5 for losses). Herron, though, has the 94-yard interception return for a touchdown in the opener against UC Davis. Fresno State’s still waiting to see a breakout game from Knox, who’s capable of becoming a Marcus Riley-type presence if he plays with more reckless abandon.

The strength of Utah State’s defense might be this group. Sophomore Bobby Wagner (6-1, 217) leads the WAC and is tied for 15th in the country averaging 10 tackles per game. Wagner has 70 for the year (and a team-high four for losses) – far ahead of the big name on the Aggies defense, senior Paul Igboeli (6-0, 220) who has 31. Igboeli, however, missed last week’s win over Louisiana Tech with an ankle injury. Starting in his place was sophomore Kyle Gallagher (6-1, 203), who’s tied for fourth on the team with 32 tackles, and second with 1.5 sacks.

Defensive Backs
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State has to be quite pleased with its secondary play after allowing minus-1 yard passing on four completions to New Mexico State’s starter last week. The cornerback play might be the most improved of any position on the field this season, and it starts with junior Desia Dunn (5-9, 190), who’s third on the team with 33 tackles and has a Bulldogs-best six pass breakups. Senior strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) is second with 33 tackles (three for losses) and was announced Thursday as one of 16 finalists for the “Academic Heisman.” The return to health of junior free safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200) is the biggest boost of all. This defense plays with a different attitude when Bell’s healthy and popping pads with people as he was last week. It’s Bulldog Football with an attitude. Bell reeled in his first career interception last week, returning it 17 yards for a score.

The safety play for Utah State is nothing to scoff at. Senior James Brindley (5-11, 189) is second on the Aggies with 59 tackles (2.5 for losses) and has a team-best three interceptions to go with a sack. Brindley also has six pass breakups. Scary news for the Aggies is Brindley will likely miss Saturday's game with injury. Junior free safety Rajric Coleman (6-2, 179) is third with 45 tackles and has one pick. Sophomore reserve safety Walter McClenton (5-11, 191) had 14 tackles last week after recording just one previous tackle in his career. Both starting corners also have picks this season in former Edison High standout senior Kejon Murphy (5-9, 168) and junior Curtis Marsh (6-1, 193).

Special Teams
Edge: Bulldogs

You can bet Fresno State sophomore kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190) is still haunting Utah State after his 58-yard field goal won the game with no time remaining last season. Goessling has been dominant since, making 9 of 10 field goals this year with a long of 49 yards. His only miss was beyond 40 yards. Senior punter Robert Malone (6-2, 225) averages 47 yards and 1/3 of his 21 punts have gone for 50-plus yards. With so many weapons in the return game, the Bulldogs finally took one back for a touchdown as Chastin West had an 88-yard punt return last week. Most teams have avoided the Bulldogs’ return men at all costs. The Bulldogs also blocked yet another kick, thanks to Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295).
Senior kicker Chris Ulinski (6-3, 203) is turning in a heck of a year so far, having nailed 9 of 11 field goals with a long of 48 yards. Junior punter Peter Caldwell (6-4, 231)has been phenomenal with 22 of 49 punts pinned inside the 20-yard line and an average of 42.9 yards. Freshman Kerwynn Williams (5-9, 180) averages 23.2 yards per kick return with a long of 41 yards.

Edge: Bulldogs

Utah State’s Gary Andersen is in his first year at the helm after directing Utah’s defense previously. Andersen already has the Aggies pointed in the right direction, and has a good shot to make noise in the coming years. Defense is the weakness right now, but he can be counted on to turn that into a strength. Still, there’s no way to give a first-year coach the edge over the WAC’s longest tenured leader, Pat Hill, who’s in his 13th year.

Edge: Bulldogs

Utah State has given the Bulldogs fits the past three years, losing by three in 2008, 11 in 2007 and beating the ‘Dogs in 2006 in a shocker. That said, Fresno State is 10-2-1 against the Aggies all-time in Fresno, and hasn’t lost at home to Utah State since 1980 – the year the Bulldogs became Division I-A.

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