Friday, September 24, 2010

Pre-game Walkthrough: Collecting our thoughts as the 'Dogs take on The Grove

Fresno State's annual hold-your-breath game with utah state is over and done with, complete with a new breakout star and all.

The Bulldogs' attention has now turned to ye olde Miss, thee of the SEC. It's a good thing Fresno State coach Pat Hill and co. enjoy playing the toughest possible games, because the Rebels will be as dangerous as can be this weekend.

What would a 'Dogs game be without an opponent at its best?

You might have noticed the labeling of the Rebels above as "as dangerous as can be." That's because quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is just one hole punch away from filling up his frequent visitor card and getting a free, all expenses paid night in the slammer.

OK, so maybe the Rebels (1-2) present two kinds of danger. They also present a daunting on-field task this week. The rationale? It's do or die for the Rebels. With losses already to an FCS team in Jacksonville State and a usual SEC doormat in Vanderbilt, Ole Miss already has an uphill climb just to become bowl eligible. A loss to Fresno State may very well bury the spirit of the Rebels, making this game the potential turning point in their season and thus, making them as dangerous as they're gonna be.

The stupid elephant in the room

There is one BCS conference left in the world that hasn't been blessed with a loss at the hands of Fresno State — the SEC. That's right, of all the "helmet scalps" the Bulldogs have collected and displayed on the walls of their football complex, none come from the dirty south.

That seems to be a valid enough reason to identify the elephant, who probably has a secret or two to share with Kool-Aid on how to enter a room quietly.

Rebel depression: what Ole Miss fans are saying

The words Fresno State haven't been thrown around much this week by the Rebel faithful. When they have, it is usually as the final accessory to a full-fledged meltdown. Good news san jose state fans, you no longer have to feel alone.

Message boards are full of "what if we fire this coach" topics, I give up claims and overall general confusion about the current state of the Rebels.

The flagship blog for Ole Miss is Red Cup Rebellion of the SB Nation family of blogs. Nowhere have the losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt been more heartfelt than by the younger community of Rebels. All week long, these guys have been sorting through the debris of depression, hoping to find the source of the wildfire. The result has been almost a week's worth of ignoring the opponent that will provide them with the toughest, most physical game they will play all year.

To get an idea of exactly how much these guys new about Fresno State this year, I tuned into their weekly Red Cup Radio podcast. Essentially, during the Fresno State portion of the show, the guys read off stats from the stat sheet and declared which players are starters and what they're capable of based on this. That led to them thinking things like A.J. Ellis missed last week's game and that Ryan Colburn is a dangerous dual threat quarterback. Still, they're probably more reliable than Wes Bunting.

All in all, Rebel fans are dazed, confused and talking each other off of the ledge that each of them is standing on. An Ole Miss win will bring hope. An Ole Miss loss will produce record alcohol sales.

Fresno State players with extra important roles

Ryan Colburn + A.J. Johnson/Jalen Saunders/Matt Lindsey: Colburn will need to find at least one other go-to receiver to distribute the ball to in this game, as Devon Wylie remains out and Rashad Evans is doubtful for this game. Colburn is also facing a defense that has struggled defending the big play at times, and like the Bulldogs defense, has yet to intercept a pass this season.

Jermaine Thomas and/or Desia Dunn: Thomas and Dunn are each responsible for their respective sides of the field, so whomever receives the assignment of the Rebels' Markeith Summers has his work cut out. Summers is a 6'3" big-play receiver who has 10 catches for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns this season.

Fresno State offensive line: Ole Miss is giving up more than 140 rushing yards per game, an average accumulated by the trio of Jacksonville State, Tulane and Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs have yet to have true success running the ball in their previous SEC meetings, and will need to do so this game to keep the defense fresh and out of the humidity, maintain possession and provide the option for big plays in the run game should Colburn fail to find suitable receiving options. The Bulldogs will also plug in Leslie Cooper — who is replacing All-American Andrew Jackson — at right guard for his first start of the 2010 season. Those nervous about Cooper's performance need not worry, you don't name a man Leslie unless you know he can physically dominate other humans or that he'll be the future star of The Naked Gun series.

*Wildcard pick — Derron Smith: Fresno State strong safety Lorne Bell practiced all week, but without contact. His status is still unknown for this game and his replacement is a true freshman in Derron Smith. Smith is faster than Bell and a better defender against the pass, but he has never seen game action for the Bulldogs as a safety. If Smith's first plays at SS come on the road in an SEC venue, his performance will be something to keep an eye on.

Intangible factors

Some of the intangible factors for a Fresno State game are constants, but the significance of their role varies from game to game and opponent to opponent. Come to think of it, that's probably the reason they're called intangibles.

Fresno State players live for games like this. Fans like me live for every game, meaning I also live for games like this. What does that mean? It means I, along with however many Fresno State players, coaches and fans in Mrs. Sippi, will be oozing with the bravado and machismo Fresno State is known for. Fear, confidence and effort will not be a factor. That can't be a bad thing right?

Both Fresno State and Ole Miss combine for a grand total of 0 interceptions through five games. However, Ryan Colburn and Jeremiah Masoli have combined to throw 6 this season. A struggling Rebels team could use the extra possessions to get right and a resurgent Bulldogs defense could use the turnovers to get over a major turnover hurdle. Does this stat even matter? And if so, who needs it more?

On offense and defense, Fresno State's strengths and weaknesses have been the exact inverse of the Ole Miss strengths and weaknesses. The Rebels have been stronger in the first half on all accounts, while Fresno State has largely been a second half team. This trend offers an interesting contrast in styles. 

The Ole Miss tangible factor

Jonathan Cornell: The senior from California has been a one man wrecking crew on defense. How the Bulldogs handle him could determine how well-oiled the offense can be. So far this season, Cornell has  collected 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 pass break ups and 1 forced fumble. 

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium: Home of the Rebels

Ole Miss is best known for having the best tailgating experience around in The Grove. Fans dress up and congregate in huge numbers, in a nice setting, doing fun things, apparently. 

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium seats 60,580 fans. According to Phil Steele's 2010 homefield advantage formula, that number is part of what makes up a 3.75 point homefield advantage for the Rebels, good for 62nd-best in the country.
In contrast, Fresno State's Bulldog Stadium is credited with a 4 point homefield advantage by Steele, 46th-best in the country.

The stadium does, however, possess a 48 ft x 84 ft video board, a $6 million dollar gem that should provide great high-definition replays of the SEC officiating crew's homer-jobs. The Rebels also play on an artificial FieldTurf surface, one of the few teams in the SEC to do so.

Bottom line: Fresno State has played in the toughest stadium's in the country, and Vaught-Hemingway isn't one of them. Noise won't be a factor, and intimidation won't be a factor. But at least the Fresno State fans making the trip to Oxford have a nice place tailgate right outside of it.

Injuries Schminjuries

  • Devon Wylie: Wylie injured his foot in the opener, and has since had surgery to correct the problem.
  • Andrew Jackson: Jack suffered a high ankle sprain against utah state and also had minor surgery.
  • Rashad Evans: Shad has been nursing a hamstring injury all week. He's been practicing this week, but only minimally, and hasn't tested it with the same explosiveness he uses in games quite yet.
  • Lorne Bell: Bell appears to be making a quick recovery from a shoulder injury, also against the aggies. He says he'll be good to go, but coaches haven't confirmed it quite yet. He'll be evaluated in Mississippi when the team arrives to see if he's a go.
  • Robbie Rouse: Mighty Mouse has been practicing at full speed after taking much of the last two weeks off to recover from shoulder and ankle injuries. Rouse will be ready to go, and at best will share carries with A.J. Ellis and Tracy Slocum.

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