Thursday, September 16, 2010

FRESNO STATE (1-0) at Utah State (1-1)

Bulldogs at Aggies
Saturday, 5 p.m.
Romney Stadium (25,513)

It’s far too early to talk about national stats leaders, but Fresno State senior QB Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) leads the WAC and is second in the NCAA with a 208.1 passer rating after one game. It was well documented during fall camp that Colburn looked different — improved passer with more command — in practice and if the season-opening 28-14 win over two-time defending Big East champ Cincinnati is any indication, those observations were correct. Colburn was 18 of 24 for 247 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception. Last year he was a manageable QB – this year he might be the type of QB who can carry a team to victory.

It’s widely known by now how lethal senior Diondre Borel (6-0, 190) can be, especially for a defense like Fresno State’s that has traditionally struggled against mobile QBs. And Borel is as mobile as they come – even on a ‘Dogs schedule that also includes Zach Collaros (Cincinnati), Jeremiah Masoli (Ole Miss) and Colin Kaepernick (Nevada). But Borel can also throw it, as his 596 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games this year shows. He’s completed 61% of his passes, but has tossed 3 picks. The Bulldogs’ defense is familiar with what Borel can do (he’s caused it fits two straight years) and have a lot of respect for his ability. Last year against the ‘Dogs, Borel threw for 240 yards and ran for 105. This game will go a long way toward determining which school has the better QB.
Edge: Even

Running Backs
The Bulldogs endured some tough-to-swallow news this week when Pat Hill announced starting RB sophomore Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) won’t play on Saturday because of injury. Rouse had a disappointing opener, averaging just 2 yards per carry, but that may have been more the fault of the offensive line than Rouse. With one elusive sophomore sidelined, another elusive sophomore gets his first career start in A.J. Ellis (5-11, 180). Ellis had 1 carry for 6 yards out of the “hound” formation (Fresno State’s wildcat) in the opener, and has just 3 runs for 13 yards in his career. He spent most of camp as the fourth-string back, but is a danger in the passing game, especially out of shotgun formation. Thanks to being healthier than his teammates on the unit, he’s shot up the depth chart and will have a chance to emerge as an every-down runner. That said, expect senior Tracy Slocum (5-10, 205), a Fresno native who transferred from Cal, to get his first action in Bulldog Red. He sat out the opener with turf toe but is expected back for Utah State. Slocum rushed for 125 yards in 2008 for Cal. Slocum’s power running game should be the perfect ingredient to mix in with Ellis’ speed. Sophomore Michael Harris (5-10, 200) is the other back to keep an eye on. He’s been a stud the past two years in scrimmages, and should see his most significant playing time. Harris had 11 carries for 26 yards against UC Davis last year.

Utah State also has been hit hard by injury at RB, as returning 1,000-yard rusher Robert Turbin (138 yards against the ‘Dogs last year) is out for the season. There’s no doubt the Aggies would like to establish the run on Saturday, something they haven’t been as successful with as they’d like. But the cupboard’s not empty – in fact, it’s running back by committee. Senior starter Michael Smith (5-9, 195) leads the team with 134 yards rushing (6.7 per carry) and senior Derrvin Speight (5-9, 209) isn’t far behind with 121 yards (4.2 per carry). Second-string sophomore Kerwynn Williams (5-9, 185) has just 32 yards on 7 rushes.
Edge: Even

The injury bug hit Fresno State even harder at WR, though there’s more depth. Senior Devon Wylie (5-9, 185), the fastest WR in school history with a 4.25 40-yard dash, had foot surgery and could miss half or all of the season. Wylie made two spectacular catches in the opener, including a 28-yard, leaping touchdown in double coverage. The most comparable replacement option, as far as skill set, is true freshman Jalen Saunders (5-9, 160), who had an 18-yard grab in his first college game. Saunders doesn’t quite have Wylie speed (in the 40 at least), but he’ll be one of the school’s fastest ever by the time his career is over, and is already a major deep threat. Redshirt freshman A.J. Johnson (6-0, 180) and junior J.J. Stallworth (5-11, 185) are the other options. Neither has a college catch yet, but Hill is very high on Johnson’s potential and Stallworth has the bloodlines (younger brother of NFL’s Donte Stallworth). The two sure things for the ‘Dogs will be junior Jamel Hamler (6-2, 195) and sophomore Rashad Evans (5-9, 180). Hamler had a highlight touchdown grab in the opener, jumping backward in traffic in the corner of the end zone, and Evans sprinted up the seam for a 59-yard score of his own. The two combined for 9 catches and 124 yards. Hamler was second on the team with 503 yards and 5 touchdowns last season.

Junior Utah State WR Matt Austin (6-2, 198) was expected to be Borel’s top target this season but was lost to a knee injury against Oklahoma after making 1 catch for 59 yards. Austin was predicted as WAC newcomer of the year by Blue Ribbon’s preseason magazine. Now, the Aggies will roll with sophomore Dontel Watkins (6-2, 193) and junior Xavier Martin (5-11, 195), who lead the team with 139 and 114 yards respectively. Each had a touchdown. Watch also for freshman Travis Reynolds (6-0, 169) who has 7 catches for 70 yards. This group came up with some big catches against Oklahoma’s secondary, but may have tougher sledding against a Bulldogs unit that looks much improved in press coverage and tackling.
Edge: Bulldogs

Offensive Line
The biggest shock of the opener was the line’s poor performance in the running game, allowing the team to rush for just 1.6 yards per carry – when’s the last time that happened? With five returning starters, and a boatload of depth returning, don’t expect to see that again. The line has three legit first-team All-WAC candidates in RG Andrew Jackson (6-6, 295), RT Kenny Wiggins (6-7, 315) and C Joey Bernardi (6-2, 285). Jackson was a first-team honoree last season and is an All-America candidate, while Wiggins earned second-team All-WAC.

Utah State’s line is holding up well after two games, helping the rushing attack average 4.2 yards per carry and allowing just 4 sacks. And that’s with two seniors, two juniors and a freshman, Tyler Larsen (6-4, 298), starting at center. The biggest question is whether the Aggies tackles can slow Fresno State’s edge pass rush. And Larsen will have his hands full with the Bulldogs’ big, veteran interior linemen.
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Line
If the defensive front continues to play with the type of tenacity it had against Cincinnati, the Bulldogs are on their way to a big, big season. Junior DT Logan Harrell (6-2, 275) had one of the most unsuspected breakout performances in Hill’s tenure, recording 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss against mobile Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros. Senior DE Chris Carter (6-2, 240) was just as ruthless with 3 sacks and 3 tackles for loss. Both also forced fumbles. Carter will be a mismatch for his counterpart all season with his speed off the edge, and Harrell should have opportunities with the amount of attention senior DT Cornell Banks (6-3, 310) will command at scrimmage. And if senior DE Chris Lewis (6-3, 260) plays with a high motor, this front four will rival Boise State’s for best in the WAC. A leaner Lewis added 0.5 sacks and 3 tackles in the opener.

To put into perspective how well the Bulldogs front four played in their opener, Utah State’s front four combines for just 1.5 sacks – less than two individual Bulldogs have on their own in one game. Though senior DT Sean Enesi (5-11, 286) is a team captain, his battery mate senior DT Daniel Gurrola (6-1, 282) has been the most impressive so far with 8 tackles and a sack. Enesi has four tackles, but will try to clog the middle against a Bulldogs’ offensive line that owns a tremendous size advantage.
Edge: Bulldogs

Another breakout occurred at LB with a speedier, lean sophomore SLB Travis Brown (6-2, 235), a former four-star recruit who played as a reserve as a true freshman last season. Brown was second on the team with 8 tackles in the opener, including a sack for an 8-yard loss out of zone coverage. His closing speed in reacting to developing plays is night-and-day from last season. And, of course, Utah State will have to deal with returning first-team All-WAC senior MLB Ben Jacobs (6-4, 240), who had 7 tackles against Cincinnati and has more than 300 in his career.

Another hard-hit injury position could be LB for the Aggies, with standout junior Junior Keiaho (6-3, 243) in doubt for Saturday. Keiaho has 5 tackles, a sack and a pick this year. Junior rover Bobby Wagner (6-1, 230) leads the team with 18 tackles and junior Kyle Gallagher (6-0, 214) is tied for second with 13 stops.
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Backs
Another position, another breakout performance – and this one was predicted many months ago by The Bounce. Sophomore CB Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 190) emerged as the team’s first true lockdown corner in years. He’s strong enough to play physical, press coverage that ‘Dogs fans aren’t used to seeing and had 5 tackles in his first career start. When his man makes a catch, Thomas makes the tackle – and quick. His own team often avoided throwing his way throughout fall camp scrimmage situations. And how ‘bout senior CB Desia Dunn (5-9, 195) showing he could get up to scrimmage and play physical at times too? Dunn led the team with 11 tackles and delivered the biggest hit of the night, popping his own helmet off in the process. The ‘Dogs are very strong at safety as well, with the run stuffer and hardest hitter in senior FS Lorne Bell (5-10, 210) and sophomore SS Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205), who has good enough coverage skills to play nickelback. Thomas is an upgrade over the departed Moses Harris, who was a two-time All-WAC honoree.

A local native has emerged as one of Utah State’s top CBs in senior Curtis Marsh (6-1, 193) of Golden Valley High-Merced. He has 8 tackles along with senior CB Chris Randle (5-11, 187), who also has 0.5 sacks and an interception. The Aggies have 4 picks on the young season. Junior SS Walter McClenton (5-11, 193) is tied for second on the team with 13 tackles. The Aggies like to play physical, pressure defense against the pass, a characteristic of coach Gary Andersen, and will challenge the Bulldogs wideouts early.
Edge: Bulldogs

Special Teams
With Wylie out in the return game, true freshman WR Isaiah Burse (5-11, 180) is listed as kick returner along with Hamler. Hamler is likely to be used as a blocker. Evans will assume punt return duties (as he should have in the first place). After one game, the ‘Dogs have to be pleased with P Andrew Shapiro, who averaged 40 yards on 8 punts, including 2 inside the 20. It was also encouraging to see LB Kyle Knox flying downfield in kick coverage and making big tackles. That enthusiasm is contagious. Junior K Kevin Goessling didn’t attempt a field goal in the opener, but Utah State fans remember him well for nailing a game-winning 58-yarder (Fresno State all-time record) in the Bulldogs’ last trip to Logan in 2008. Goessling is up for the Lou Groza Award once again this year as the nation’s top kicker.

Utah State boasts perhaps the WAC’s most powerful punter in senior Peter Caldwell (6-4, 228), who averages 46.3 yards per attempt and has booted 4 of 9 punts more than 50 yards and placed 4 inside the 20. Caldwell is 2 of 4 on field goals, with a long of 40 yards. Kerwynn Williams averages 28.7 yards per kick return, and 11 yards per punt return. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on him as the Bulldogs shut down Cincinnati in kick and punt coverage. If the game comes down to a field goal, it’ll be the Bulldogs’ advantage.
Edge: Bulldogs

Fresno State coach Pat Hill is the grandfather of WAC coaches in his 14th season at Fresno State, and has won 101 games. He has a ton of respect for Utah State after seeing them play the ‘Dogs so closely the past two seasons and should have the team amped up for the game. Utah State coach Gary Andersen has this program looking better than it ever has in the WAC – which has never been good – in just his second season. His a defensive-minded coach and nearly led the Aggies to a season-opening win at Oklahoma.
Edge: Bulldogs

If ever there were some intangibles to talk about – whew! With Fresno State accepting an offer to join the Mountain West Conference, Utah State and the other remaining WAC schools feel betrayed. And the ‘Dogs better believe they’ll use it for motivation, and the fans will feed off it in Logan. Romney Stadium seats only 25,513, but the students are great fans at Utah State and will make plenty of noise to create a hostile road environment. That said, Fresno State is well aware of how dangerous the Aggies’ offense can be, and won’t be caught off guard. There’s a lot on the line for the Bulldogs, who could very well move into the Top 25 with a win (they’re currently 27th in the AP poll).
Edge: Aggies
**Photos by Cary Edmondson

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