Saturday, November 7, 2009

Preview: Fresno State (5-3, 4-1) @ Idaho (7-2, 4-1)

Edge: Even

The time is now for Fresno State’s Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) to prove what he’s made of. He’s been a heck of an upgrade at times this year throwing the deep ball, but has also thrown as many or more interceptions as his predecessor at his worst. On the year, the junior lefty is 100 for 168 (60%) for 1,447 yards, 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. But a 4:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio isn’t going to cut it as the Bulldogs head down a three-game stretch against their biggest completion remaining in the WAC – especially when there’s a mega talent standing on the sideline in true freshman Derek Carr (6-3, 190). Redshirt freshman speedster Ebahn Feathers (6-0, 210) isn’t likely to play if Idaho is stacking defenders in the box, but if Colburn opens up the field with his passing, Feathers will have a chance to exploit the Vandals’ defense.

Idaho junior Nathan Enderle (6-5, 227) is the biggest reason for the Vandals’ rise from embarrassment this season. Problem is, Enderle is reportedly a game-time decision with a rotator cuff injury. Bulldogs coach Pat Hill said Enderle emerged last season in Fresno State’s 45-32 win over Idaho at Bulldog Stadium, when he completed 22 of 39 for 237 yards. He’s skyrocketed since, leading the WAC with 267.1 yards passing per game (16th nationally). On the season, Enderle has thrown for a career-high-and-counting 2,404 yards, 15 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, while completing 62%. He might be the toughest challenge the Bulldogs have had besides Cincinnati’s Tony Pike and Boise State’s Kellen Moore – but Enderle isn’t a mobile quarterback and Fresno State typically has more success against pocket passers. And though he has as many interceptions as Colburn, Enderle’s production is much higher. If Enderle can’t go, it’ll be sophomore Brian Reader (6-3, 220), who’s 12 of 15 on the season for 143 yards and a touchdown. If Enderle plays, give the edge to the Vandals. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulldogs because of Reader’s inexperience.

Running Backs
Edge: Bulldogs

It’s to the point now where anytime you talk running backs, Fresno State gets the edge – no analysis of the opponent necessary. Touting the country’s best running back allows for that kind of confidence, and junior Ryan Mathews (5-11, 220) should enjoy running on Idaho’s flat, artificial surface. Mathews averages a nation-best 164.5 yards per game, nearly 28 yards more than the closest competitor. He’s rushed for more than 100 yards all eight games this season (a school record) en route to 1,316 yards (7.4 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. Then consider Mathews sat about five quarters this year in four different Bulldogs’ blowouts. Mathews’ 31 career touchdowns is four away from tying Anthony Daigle (1991-93) for the school record. He’s 147 yards from passing Dwayne Wright (2006) for third all-time in single-season rushing, and 230 yards from passing Michael Pittman (1993-97) for second in career rushing. Mathews’ resilience in last Saturday’s win over Utah State was impressive as he bounced right back from a big blind-sided hit to carry the ‘Dogs to victory. For the first time all year, true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) didn’t have a carry. Rouse is second on the team with 344 yards rushing, 4 touchdowns and a team-high 7.6 per carry. Senior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) has 215 yards and 3 scores on 5.4 per attempt. Miller torched the Vandals with 15 carries for 181 yards in the Bulldogs’ win last season, and senior Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) added 94 yards on 8 carries. A banged up Mathews had just 8 attempts for 57 yards.

Idaho’s got a trio of good backs as well – just not as good as Fresno State’s. It starts with rather large senior De’Maundray Woolridge (5-9, 241), who leads the Vandals with 554 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.3 per carry. Junior Deonte Jackson (5-8, 190), the nephew of the St. Louis Rams’ Steven Jackson, was thought to be the star coming into the season. Jackson ranks third on the team with 325 yards and 2 scores on 5.2 per carry. In between those two is Valley product Princeton McCarty (5-8, 174) with 469 yards and 2 scores on a team-high 5.7 per carry. McCarty was Mathews’ high school teammate. While the three of these guys together are definitely dangerous, none of them present the full package the way Mathews does. But they face a Fresno State defense that’s given up 5.3 yards per rush on the year. Jackson carried 18 times for 93 yards in last season’s meeting.

Edge: Vandals

Will junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170) suit up after missing Fresno State’s past two games with injury? That’s the biggest question in the Bulldogs’ passing game – the unique ability of Wylie adds a different dimension to the offense. But with or without him, senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210) has blossomed into arguably the WAC’s best wideout. Granted he doesn’t pile up the big stats, but his 31 catches for 480 yards and 3 touchdowns are impressive when put into context that he plays on a team with the nation’s top rusher. In Wylie’s absence, sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) turned in his second straight 5-catch performance, this time good for 53 yards. Hamler’s now second on the team with 17 catches, but fourth in yards with 215, behind Wylie (242) and senior Chastin West (6-1, 215) who has 225 yards. Senior Marlon Moore (6-1, 190) is second with 3 touchdowns (out of just 7 catches). If Wylie plays, it turns this position into an advantage for Fresno State.

It’s no secret who Idaho’s favorite target is – senior slot Max Komar (5-11, 202), a former walk-on who leads the team with a whopping 50 receptions for 807 yards and 7 scores. Komar already has more yards than any Vandals wideout since 2005. And he’s got help from three juniors with size. Big junior Daniel Hardy (6-4, 235) has 25 catches for 413 yards and 2 touchdowns, even bigger junior Eric Greenwood (6-6, 213) with 29 catches for 382 yards and 2 scores and Maurice Shaw (6-3, 208) has 360 yards (22.5 per catch) for 3 touchdowns. The size of those three, coupled with Komar’s success, will cause match-up problems for the Bulldogs, who are already thin in the secondary. And Fresno State also has to concern itself with sophomore Preston Davis (6-1, 191), who has 296 yards on 25 catches – a reception total that would rank second on the Bulldogs. Davis led the Vandals last year against the ‘Dogs, hauling in 6 catches for 77 yards. Most impressive, four of the top five receivers have already surpassed their yardage and reception totals of last season, and Davis is tied with his yardage total from 2008.

Offensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs

Sit back, relax and pay close attention to the play in the trenches. Fresno State’s line is led by one of the WAC’s top NFL prospects in junior right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295), who was second-team All-WAC last year and was recently named Academic All-District 8. Fresno State’s five Academic All-District players ranked highest in the nation. On top of that, Jackson was named to at least one publication’s midseason All-America team. Overall, this group has allowed just 10 sacks this season (none last week) and is paving the way for the Bulldogs’ backs to average a whopping 6 yards per carry as a team.

Speaking of NFL prospects, look out for Idaho senior left guard Mike Iupati (6-6, 325). The massive Iupati on both the Lombard Award (nation’s top lineman) and Outland Trophy (nation’s best interior lineman) watch list. He’s joined by three other seniors, including senior Adam Juratovac (6-3, 306). The Vandals’ line, though, has given up 19 sacks on the season – but Enderle isn’t a great escape artist and they’ve attempted 276 passes (Fresno State’s attempted 189).Idaho averages 4.4 yards per carry.

Defensive Line
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State struggled last week against the WAC’s fastest starting quarterback, and was kept off-balance the week before by New Mexico State’s duel quarterbacks. While this Saturday’s test features the WAC’s passing yardage leader, the Bulldogs’ defense should be relieved to face a pocket passer. The No. 1 reason that’s a relief? Enderle is far less likely to outrun junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230) when he gets into the Idaho backfield. Carter leads the ‘Dogs with 4 sacks, 9.5 tackles for losses and 3 hurries. If he can get to Enderle early and often, and the Bulldogs get some help from sophomore end Kenny Borg (6-3, 245) on the other side, Idaho’s offense could stall. But that’s a big question mark considering Fresno State averages just 1 sack per game.

Idaho hasn’t fared much better than Fresno State this season, recording just 11 sacks. But the Vandals boast a couple of linemen to watch out for in the passing game – junior end Aaron Lavarias (6-3, 248) and junior nose tackle Jonah Sataraka (6-2, 280). Each is tied for the team lead with 3 sacks, while Lavarias has 6 tackles for losses and Sataraka has 4. This will be the toughest offensive line the Vandals have faced all year – and the best running back – so the Vandals will have to step it up a notch to prevent Fresno State from controlling the tempo and time of possession.

Edge: Even

Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) keeps on keepin’ on. With 60 tackles, the junior middle linebacker has nearly twice as many as the next closest Bulldog. He’s also second on the team with 5 tackles for losses, has an interception and 2 breakups. The ‘Dogs linebackers will be needed in pass coverage Saturday against a Vandals team that like to distribute the ball through the air. It would be nice to see the Bulldogs experiment more with a two-linebacker set, but history suggests that won’t happen. This group will also be responsible for preventing too many big plays from the Vandals running backs, especially McCarty, the change of pace guy.

Junior strong linebacker JoJo Dickson (6-2, 229) is the one to watch for in the Vandals’ front seven. Dickson is second on the team with 54 tackles and 2 interceptions. He flies under the radar in the WAC, but is a solid player. Also keep an eye out for little known sophomore Tre’Shawn Robinson (5-11, 233) who is tied for the team lead with 6 tackles for losses. Both also have a sack on the season, but will be vulnerable to Mathews’ agility, speed and power and won’t be able to tackle him without squaring up (which is tough to accomplish with a back who can maintain speed the way Mathews does while changing direction and twisting his body).

Defensive Backs
Edge: Even

It should be a fun evening for free safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200), the Bulldogs’ most vicious hitter. Bell thrives against pocket passers, when he can focus on blitzing or spying running backs (see Wisconsin). Despite missing two games with injury, Bell is fourth on the team with 31 tackles (3.5 for losses) and had his first career interception two weeks ago for a touchdown. The corner play has improved dramatically since the start of the season, with junior Desia Dunn (5-9, 190) and senior A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) combining for 10 breakups. But neither has an interception – in fact no Fresno State corner on the two-deep rotation has a pick this year. Add to that the challenge the Bulldogs’ secondary faces with four Vandals receivers over 6-foot tall. Jefferson is the Bulldogs’ tallest corner, with senior Damion Owens (5-11, 200) and sophomore Isaiah Green (5-10, 180) filling out the two-deep. Redshirt freshman reserve safety Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205) is capable of holding his own in coverage and will likely be the nickel back.

Lurking in the defensive backfield for Idaho is the WAC’s leading tackler, junior Shiloh Keo (5-11, 211) who has 88 tackles (2 for losses) and a team-high 3 interceptions. Keo is a big strong safety, and will be the Vandals best hope for containing Fresno State’s running game (ranked fifth nationally). Senior free safety Jeromy Jones (6-1, 200) is third on the team with 48 tackles, and Idaho has a group of underclassmen holding it down at corner with freshman Aaron Grymes (5-11, 160) and sophomore Kenneth Patten (5-9, 178) starting. This group hasn’t yet faced a team with as many weapons at receiver, especially if Wylie is healthy.

Special Teams
Edge: Bulldogs

Just how good is Fresno State sophomore kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190)? He’s nailed 10 of 11 field goals on the year, including a 50-yarder last week that was as perfect as a kick can get. Since missing a field goal last season that could have tied the Wisconsin game, Goessling has missed just twice. His last miss was this year’s game at Wisconsin in Week 2. At punter, senior Robert Malone (6-2, 225) averages 47.5 yards – a number that would have him high amongst the nation’s leaders if he had enough attempts (he’s punted 25 times). Fresno State’s special teams have been at a high level since early season woes, but the kick return game still hasn’t come around. Two years ago, Jefferson led the nation in kick returns, and he had touchdown returns in each of the past two seasons. Yet this year, Jefferson averages a measly 22 yards per return with a long of only 36 – and he fumbled away a return last week that caused the Bulldogs to fall into a 10-point halftime deficit.

Idaho freshman Justin Veltung (5-11, 175) was the WAC’s special teams player of the week after returning a kick 94 yards for a touchdown this past Saturday in a win over Louisiana Tech. But he’s had just four returns all year, with Kama Bailey (5-9, 200) getting most of the returns and averaging 21.1 yards. True freshman kicker Trey Farquhar (6-1, 170) has been quite impressive – connecting on two 50-plus yarders this year and 12 of 16 overall (he’s also missed one from under 30 yards). But Farquhar has enough upside for Idaho to feel comfortable in a late-game situation if it comes down to the wire. Redshirt freshman punter Bobby Cowan (6-5, 221) averages 44.3 yards per try and has pinned 10 of 25 inside the 20-yard line.

Edge: Bulldogs

Credit third-year Idaho coach Robb Akey for a season that’s earning him coach of the year consideration. Akey’s Vandals are 7-2 after winning just three games in the previous two years combined. That said, they still have to prove they can compete with the WAC’s best – Nevada beat them 70-45 and they haven’t yet played Fresno State or rival Boise State. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are consistently the WAC’s most talented team (albeit not the best at living up to expectations). Pat Hill is in his 13th year with the Bulldogs, more than any other WAC coach, and has the second most wins in Bulldog history behind Jim Sweeney.

Edge: Vandals

The Kibbie Dome is going to be rocking like never before. Former Fresno State players say the tiny converted airplane hangar is a flatout difficult place to play regardless, but with a packed house of 16,000-plus thunderstick-clanging fans enjoying Idaho’s best season best season in recent history, the Bulldogs are in for a noisy battle unless they can jump out to a big lead in a hurry. A win is crucial to both teams’ bowl hopes considering the tough games remaining on their schedules, and the loser is pretty much eliminated from WAC title hopes. Oh yeah, and Idaho is 4-0 at home this season. But, the Bulldogs haven’t lost to the Vandals since 1967.

***Photos courtesy of Juan Villa

1 comment:

  1. Wylie will not suit up. He didn't even make the trip.


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