Breaking Down: Rutgers vs. Fresno State

Rutgers fans, it's time again for another football season. The Scarlet Knights, fresh off back-to-back bowl championships, fire it up with a doozy of an opener against No. 25 Fresno State, a team whose motto is "anybody, anytime, anywhere."

Fresno State finished third in the Western Athletic Conference in 2007 behind Hawaii and Boise State and capped a 9-4 season with a 40-28 victory over Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl Dec. 31. The Bulldogs return 16 starters: 10 on offense and six on defense.


TIME/TV

The game is scheduled for 4 p.m. Eastern time at Rutgers Stadium on ESPN. Dave Pasch and Andre Ware will provide the play-by-play and color analysis, and Rob Stone is scheduled to be the sideline reporter.


SCOUTING FRESNO STATE

RU will have to be on its game from the outset to keep the Bulldogs -- ranked No. 25 in the coaches poll but unranked in the Associated Press poll -- at bay. Pat Hill’s team has a beefy schedule that includes stops at UCLA and Boise State and a home contest against Wisconsin. Don’t think Fresno State, one of the Western Athletic Conference favorites, is going to be intimidated by Rutgers Stadium. The Bulldogs in recent years have played at Texas A&M, Oregon, Louisiana State and Southern Cal, so this is no regular non-BCS team moving up to play a bigger opponent.

Pat Hill (85-55 career record) enters his 12th year at the FS helm. He has just two losing seasons in 11 years as the FS head coach, and he has led the Bulldogs to a 4-4 bowl record (4-1 in their last five postseason appearances). Hill made it clear on ESPN’s College Football Live a couple of weeks ago that he expects to come away with a victory Sept. 1, and many are picking the Bulldogs to win the WAC title this season.


OFFENSE

The Bulldogs run a controlled offense that gives touches to many players. FS rotates three running backs into the game, and each of the Bulldogs’ contributing runners logged a 100-yard game during the 2007 season. Fresno State averaged 210.9 yards on the ground last season and 208.6 in the air.

Quarterback Tom Brandstater is seasoned, he understands the offense, and he does not make many mistakes in the passing game. He has capable receivers in Chastin West and Marlon Moore, but neither has much big game experience. West missed the 2007 season after leading the Bulldogs in receiving in 2005, and Moore was the leading FS receiver last year with 48 receptions, 695 yards. Senior tight end Bear Pascoe, a John Mackey Award candidate for the best tight end in college football, is the most consistent player in Fresno State’s passing game (553 yards receiving, four touchdowns in 2007).

Lonyae Miller, Anthony Harding and Ryan Matthews provide a tough running attack to stop. The trio combined for 1,924 yards and 25 touchdowns. Matthews is the most exciting runner of the three. He led all freshmen in average yards per carry last year (5.97 yards) and was also tops among all freshmen with 14 touchdowns. He is a shifty back who gives defenses plenty of trouble.


DEFENSE

Fresno State’s defense suffered the loss of five starters off last year’s team. The Bulldogs were especially hard hit on the defensive line, where All-WAC defensive end Tyler Clutts and three-year starter Charles Tolbert provided stability and combined for 90 tackles and 9 1/2 sacks. Tackle Jon Monga, the team’s second-leading sack man in 2007 at 6 1/2 sacks, is back for his senior season.

Linebacker Ben Jacobs, the only returning starter in the linebacker corps, is the team’s leading returning tackler. Experience at secondary is the strong suit for FS defensively this season, as half of the stop unit’s returning starters are defensive backs. However, FS allowed 226.3 yards per game passing last year and allowed opponents to score an average of 27 points per game.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Perhaps the most explosive FS player is kick returner A.J. Jefferson, a junior who led the nation in kickoff returns in 2007. He averaged 35.8 yards per return in 2007 and took back two kicks for touchdowns.

Like Rutgers, the Bulldogs feature a relatively untested punter and place kicker. Punter Robert Malone was the starter in 2006, but he redshirted with an injury last season. He averaged 37.2 yards on 20 punts in his freshman season. A redshirt freshman, Kevin Goessling, should handle PAT and field goal duties.


KEY MATCHUPS

1. Fresno State’s running game versus RU’s defensive line
A weak part of Rutgers’ stop unit last season was the run defense, and the defensive line is relatively inexperienced this year up the middle. The Bulldogs throw different looks in the running game, and they averaged more than 200 yards on the ground last year. Rutgers’ defense gives up an average of 30 pounds per player in the trenches to Fresno State.

2. RU’s passing game versus Fresno State’s pass defense
Rutgers has the most talented passing game in school history, and every key starter in the passing attack returns this season. The Scarlet Knights set a school record for passing yards in 2007 and will look to concentrate more on the passing game this season. Fresno State returns three starters to a secondary that recorded just four interceptions and allowed 18 touchdowns last year.

3. Fresno State’s passing game versus RU’s pass defense
RU’s strongest unit on the defensive side of the ball is the secondary, led by safety Courtney Greene and the McCourty twins (Jason and Devin). Brandstater was 23rd nationally in pass efficiency last season (140.5, 2,654 total passing yards), and he has time to throw behind an offensive line that returns four starters. RU’s defensive backfield and linebacker corps will have to step up to stop a passing game that saw Brandstater complete nearly 63 percent of his passes in 2007. However, FS should have trouble going deep against Rutgers’ talented defensive backs.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (FRESNO STATE)

QB Tom Brandstater
Now in his third year as the starter, Brandstater improved in each of his first two years. The senior threw just five interceptions to 15 touchdowns in 2007 (including eight TDs and zero picks in his last five games) after having a 14/13 ratio the previous season, and completed nearly 63% of his passes. Brandstater doesn’t light it up with flashy statistics, but he is a solid quarterback who wins games through smart management. He’s going to keep RU’s defense on its heels.

TE Bear Pascoe
Look for Fresno State to attack the middle of the field with one of the best tight ends to come to the Valley in recent years. Pascoe was the second leading receiver for FS in 2007 and returns as probably the best tight end in the WAC. Look for him to find openings in the middle of the field if the Scarlet Knights play a soft zone.

RB Ryan Matthews
If Matthews hadn’t missed two games last season, he most likely would have passed the 1,000 yard mark for the year. He averaged a touchdown in little more than every 10 carries. If he gets running in this game, Rutgers is in for a fight.


PLAYERS TO WATCH (RUTGERS)

QB Mike Teel
The fifth-year senior is the most important player to Rutgers’ success in 2008. Teel played with an injured hand much of the 2007 season. Still, he had his best season to date and has many experienced weapons to throw to in the passing game this year. Look for Teel to try to stretch the field with his wide receivers.

WRs Kenny Britt/Tiquan Underwood
While each of the speedy wideouts has a different personality and different body type, the two are inexorably linked in RU’s passing attack as a deadly combination. Britt and Underwood each logged 1,000-yard seasons in 2007, and the duo is poised to continue their production this season. They should give FS something to think about every play.

RB Kordell Young
If you think this section is too heavy with the offense, just consider how potentially explosive this unit is this year. Young steps in as the No. 1 running back, but he brings a more cutting style to the running game than Ray Rice’s power attack the last three years. Young is also returning from a hip injury that sidelined him most of 2007, so we’ll see if he can shake off the rust and make a dent in Fresno State’s defense.


THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (FRESNO STATE)

1. Defensive line
The Bulldogs lost two of their best players in this area, including their best pass rusher. The line needs to jell quickly, but FS has the benefit of facing a Rutgers rushing attack that lost its best player in the offseason.

2. Wide receiver depth
Fresno State’s best receiver in 2006 was out last year with injuries, and while plenty of FS receivers had touches, there was no real complement to Moore in the passing attack. West is back, though it is not known how effective he can be, and FS needs to get production out of second-tier players such as

3. Kicking
Fresno State’s placekicker has never seen college action, and its punter is returning to action after missing last season due to injury. Special teams are key, and FS is in the same boat as Rutgers when it comes to inexperienced players on special teams.


THREE AREAS OF CONCERN (Rutgers)

1. Run defense
Last season the Scarlet Knights proved to be susceptible to opponents’ ground attack, yielding an average of 156.9 yards per game. Defensive tackle Eric Foster, a mainstay on the line for the past three years, is gone, and it’s unknown how players like Alex Silvestro will complement Pete Tverdov at tackle.

2. Offensive line
RU’s starting line paved the way for record rushing and passing yards in 2007 and allowed the second fewest sacks in the nation. However, 3/5 of the starting unit graduated, leaving a big question mark in run blocking and pass protection. Big man Anthony Davis made the move to tackle and Ryan Blaszcyk returns at center. Kevin Malast has plenty of experience at guard, but the offensive line has yet to play together in real game action as a unit.

3. Kicking
Redshirt freshman place kicker San San Te came highly touted out of high school, as did redshirt freshman punter Teddy Dellaganna. Both will be thrust into game action for the first time, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to pressure. Each player has the talent, but the college game moves at a much faster pace, especially at special teams.


HEAD TO HEAD

This is the first meeting between the schools and the first ever contest between Fresno State and a Big East Conference team.


TRENDS/NOTES

This is the first time since 1988 Rutgers has opened the season against a ranked opponent. RU defeated No. 15/14 Michigan State by a 17-13 count at East Lansing. . . . This is the second straight year RU is opening the season at home. The Scarlet Knights cruised to a 38-3 victory over Buffalo on a Thursday night to open the campaign in 2007. . . RU is 1-1 versus teams currently in the WAC, splitting a home and home series with Hawaii in 1974 and 1975. . . . This is the first of three ESPN games for Rutgers this season. The Scarlet Knights host North Carolina on the network Sept. 11 and end the season at home versus Louisville Dec. 4.

Fresno State is 12-19 under Pat Hill versus BCS opponents. FS was 2-2 against the BCS in 2007. . . . The Bulldogs are 51-12 at home under Pat Hill and 34-43 on the road. . . . FS has won four consecutive season openers. . . . This is only the second-time a Pat Hill-coached team has opened the season on the road. Fresno State defeated Washington 35-18 in Seattle to kick off the 2004 season.


PERSONNEL

Both teams appear to be healthy heading into the season opener.


WEATHER

The National Weather Service is calling for clear day with a high in the high 80s during the day. The temperature should drop into the low 70s/high 60s during the game.



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