Preview of the Fresno State Game

After the two disappointing losses, UCLA fans don't want to think about facing the #24-ranked team in the country. But there are actually quite a few elements to the game against Fresno State Saturday that are favorable for the Bruins...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- The Fresno State Bulldogs come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on UCLA at 12:30. The game will be televised regionally by ABC, with Terry Gannon and David Norrie calling the action.

-- Fresno State is ranked #24 by USA Today/ESPN and #25 by AP.

-- The Bulldogs are currently 2-1, beating Rutgers in New Jersey, 24-7; losing to then #10-ranked Wisconsin 13-10 in Fresno; and then winning at Toledo in a wild one, 55-54, in a game that went into overtime.

-- This will be the eighth meeting between the UCLA and Fresno State in football, with UCLA leading 6-1 in the series, which dates back to 1927. The last meeting was FSU's first win against UCLA, with the Bulldogs besting the Bruins in the 2003 Sillicon Valley Bowl, 17-9.

-- UCLA has never lost to Fresno State at the Rose Bowl.

-- Fresno State has done increasingly better against the Pac-10 in recent years. In its last 12 match-ups with Pac-10 teams, it's 5-7. Since 1980, the Bulldogs are 18-21 against the Pac-10, with all but nine of those games being on the road. In that time, no other program in the country has more wins against the Pac-10.

-- Fresno State will play seven road games in the 2008 season, and travel 18,000 miles, more than any mainland team.

-- Since 2000, Fresno State's 13 wins against BCS conference programs are the second-most in the nation.

-- FSU is coached by Pat Hill, currently in his 12th season as the Bulldog's head coach. His overall record is 87-56, posting only two losing seasons in that time while winning 9 or more games five times. Hill's name has been mentioned in the past for various open head coaching positions, but he has stayed put at Fresno State. He has recruited well, getting a good number of NFL players to come play for him at FSU, like the overall #1 pick in the 2002 NFL draft, quarterback David Carr. He has also helped to launch the careers of some pretty big-named coaches, such as Cal's Jeff Tedford and the Oakland Raiders' Lane Kiffin.

-- The green "V" on the helmets of Fresno State's players stands for "valley," representing the Central Valley of California.

-- UCLA is a young team, having played 11 true freshmen so far this season. In addition to those seven, 10 other Bruins saw the first action of their career.

-- UCLA has won six of its last seven home games against opponents ranked in the AP top 25.

-- Pat Hill has said he's expecting 20,000 to 25,000 Bulldog fans at the Rose Bowl Saturday.

-- UCLA has advertised the game in the Fresno area, trying to compel Fresno State fans to make the trip south Saturday.

-- The 10 points UCLA scored in its last two games is the lowest two-game total for the Bruins since 1999.

-- The weather forecast calls for it to cool down a bit in the Southland by Saturday. The projection is for 86 degrees in Pasadena.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. FRESNO STATE'S DEFENSE

There were some questions about Fresno State's defense heading into the season, having to replace essentially half the squad's starters.

So far Fresno State's 2008 season hasn't done much to answer those questions.

FSU's defense is ranked 100th overall in the country, allowing 423 yards per game.

And it just got considerably more questionable, losing its best lineman, defensive tackle Jon Monga (SR, 6-2, 280) to a knee injury and the other DT starter, Cornell Banks (SO, 6-3, 285) to an ankle. Starting in place of them will be Mark Roberts (SO, 6-4, 300) and freshman Logan Harrell (FR, 6-2, 275).

For a defense that was struggling some, it's a big blow.

It's especially costly since Fresno State's particularl vulnerability was in rushing defense, allowing 185 yards per game so far this season. Toledo ran for 297 yards against the Bulldogs last week, a Toledo team that gained only 74 yards rushing against Arizona three weeks ago.

If you remember, UCLA had easily its best day rushing the football last week against Arizona, gaining 111 total yards.

FSU linebacker Ben Jacobs.
The loss of Monga is substantial; not only did he give them a senior leader up the middle, he was also probably their best pass rusher, having seven sacks last season. With Monga, the Bulldogs had only registered two sacks so far in 2008. Monga got his first sack of the season last week against Toledo, but then injured his knee on the next play.

The guy who will have to fill the void is FSU's middle linebacker, Ben Jacobs (SO, 6-3, 240). Jacobs is considered one of the best young linebackers in the west, coming off a big redshirt freshman season. He did benefit last year, however, by having the 2007 WAC Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Marcus Riley, playing next to him. This year, Jacobs is basically on his own, and now has to make up for the loss of Monga. The younger brother of UCLA defensive end David Carter is the starting outside linebacker, Chris Carter (SO, 6-2, 220), who was switched from D-end himself. In his first season starting, he's doing well, averaging 7.7 tackles per game as the second leading tackler on the team next to Jacobs (28 tackles).

The passing defense has been a bit better than the rushing defense, but not by a substantial amount. Rutgers and Toledo were able to throw on the FSU defense, and Wisconsin, which is a good running team (shocking), chose to mostly run the ball. The Bulldog defense has yet to be tested against a good passing team – not that UCLA is a good one – but it bodes well for the Bruins.

Cornerback Damion Owens (JR, 5-11, 200) gets a lot of the tough one-on-one assignments, and safety Moses Harris (JR, 5-11, 205) has a good nose for the ball. They're not great ball hawkers, though, and don't get many interceptions.

UCLA's offense hopes to get a boost with the return of its starting tailback, Kahlil Bell, but we expect Bell not to be 100%. Even so, UCLA's running game had a better performance last week against Arizona, which is a far better defense than Fresno State's. Fullback Trevor Theriot is out after straining an MCL in his knee Wednesday in practice. While it's a tough break for Theriot, it might benefit UCLA since it appears that Chane Moline, who has been getting many carries at the tailback position with Bell out, will be moved to fullback. This very well might give UCLA's other tailbacks – redshirt freshman Raymond Carter and true freshman Derrick Coleman – more carries, and get more athleticism at the tailback position.

UCLA's Terrence Austin.
UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft has struggled, except for the second half against Tennessee. The UCLA coaches are hoping that with more game experience he'll continue to settle down and execute better – but at this point it is just a matter of hope.

UCLA's receiver group has been very quiet, without a really big reception or many YAC. Senior Marcus Everett looks to still be out this week, and sophomore Dominique Johnson, who dropped a critical pass that could have been a big-gainer and the break-through play of the game last week against Arizona, has yet to prove he has the focus and consistency to be effective. Terrence Austin has quietly stepped into the void as UCLA's leading receiver, having 18 catches in three games, and UCLA's longest reception from scrimmage. With senior tight end Logan Paulsen out for a few more weeks at least, and freshman tight end Cory Harkey almost certainly out with an ankle injury, Ryan Moya is left as UCLA's only true receiving tight end and, since that second half against Tennessee, he hasn't done much. Nate Chandler, the one-time tight end who converted to offensive line who then converted back to tight end, will be used as the blocking tight end.

UCLA's offensive line, if you take into consideration what it's been through, didn't do too badly against Arizona last week. Jake Dean, who is starting at center for injured Micah Reed, did pretty well in run blocking, creating some holes up the middle. The OL's problem last week was pass protection, but now they're facing a Fresno State team that doesn't put a great deal of pressure on the quarterback, and looks to put even less with its two starting defensive tackles out.

Advantage: UCLA. You might think I'm high to make this pick, but with both units being pretty poor, the match-up favors the homefield Bruins and their heretofore struggling offense. UCLA showed a flash against Arizona that its running game is starting to come around, and there isn't a better match-up for it to take the next step than Fresno State's poor – and now injury-plagued – front seven. UCLA's game plan will be to try to run the ball and eat up the clock, to keep its defense off the field, and it definitely has a chance to accomplish this against Fresno State.

Plus, after watching the UCLA/Arizona game last week again, I came away unexpectedly impressed with the play-calling. Not that it's a surprise to be impressed with the play-calling of Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, but in a game like that one, well, it is a bit surprising. The blocking scheme in the running game changed a bit from UCLA's first two games, with more movement and pulling, combined with some more counter-type calls that opened up the middle for the running game. I think Chow and OL coach Bob Palcic are pretty smart guys and they'll be able to do some more with their running game against Fresno State this week. Expect Fresno State to compensate for the loss of its two defensive tackles and stack the box, trying to limit UCLA's running game and allow it's DBs to go man-for-man against UCLA's unspectacular wide receivers.

Craft, to be even marginally effective, needs time to make decisions, and Fresno State has given opposing quarterbacks time. The fact that UCLA will probably be able to run the ball will take pressure off Craft and he could get more comfortable.

Watch for UCLA's offense to have a bit a break-out game against Fresno State. "Break-out" might be taking it a bit too far. Perhaps gaining 150 yards on the ground and over 200 through the air and maybe an offensive touchdown or two is reasonable to expect.

FRESNO STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

This is strength versus strength, even though UCLA's defense hasn't looked too strong recently.

Fresno State's offense is what's garnering FSU's top-25 ranking, and we're not going to say it's not deserved. But the offense isn't in the same ballpark as BYU's and you could make a case that Arizona's offense is even better.

Heck, Tennessee's offense is comparable this season.

Tailback Ryan Matthews.
And that might be the thing – that Fresno State's offense is living off its reputation from last season.

Fresno State's quarterback, Tom Brandstater (SR, 6-5, 225) is a heady veteran who threw for a solid 2,654 yards in 2007, and just five interceptions (and only one so far this season). Brandstater is smart and makes good decisions, which has proven key for the Bulldogs on critical downs.

Pat Hill brought in a new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, but the offense still looks as conservative as it used to be, running predominantly on both first and second down. So far this season, Fresno State is running the ball 60% of the time.

It worked last season, since it had a veteran offensive line and good running backs. Ryan Matthews ((SO, 5-11, 215) didn't even start last year but has emerged as FSU's go-to guy, averaging 101 yards per game and 5 yards per carry this season. Lonyae Miller (JR, 5-11, 215) was the starter last season, and so far this year is doing well in a back-up role, averaging 6 yards per rush. Anthony Harding (JR, 6-0, 215) is another guy who has looked good so far this season running the ball. The three of them are averaging 173 yards per game combined.

The FSU offense was good last season and projected to be very good this season because it returned four of five starters to its offensive line. But there's been some loss due to injury on the OL, and you'd have to think it will take its toll. Starting center Richard Pacheco was injured a couple of weeks ago, and veteran senior guard Cole Popovich was lost for the season last week. Stepping in at center is Joe Bernardi (SO, 6-2, 290), the son of former UCLA assistant coach Gary Bernardi.

Brandstater's favorite targets are tight end Bear Pascoe (SR, 6-5, 260) when he goes short, and receivers Marlon Moore (JR, 6-0, 190) and Seyi Ajirotutu (JR, 6-3, 210) when he throws down the field. Ajirotutu is particularly dangerous since he's big and has a knack for making the big play.

Defensive end Korey Bosworth.
UCLA's defense has definitely struggled the last two weeks, and a great deal of that struggle can be attributed to a lack of pressure on the quarterback. UCLA has just three sacks in three games and, after getting good pressure on Tennessee's quarterback, was anemic in doing so against BYU and Arizona. UCLA is trying to compensate by experimenting with other players, such freshman defensive end Datone Jones and junior defensive end Chinonso Anyanwu. Starting defensive ends Korey Bosworth and Tom Blake have been, for the most part, contained, and UCLA has had to rely on its blitzing to get pressure.

The problem in the last few weeks has been UCLA's penchant for not blitzing well when it gets into its nickel and dime packages. It does it less often and not near as effectively. The knock that follows Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker is the ineffectiveness of his scheme against spread offenses, when he utilizes his nickel and dime defenses. Luckily, this week, Fresno State has a more traditional offensive scheme and is far more conservative. We can expect to see Steve Sloan in for more plays as UCLA's middle linebacker, when UCLA utilizes three linebackers, which puts UCLA's best defender who doesn't have his hand down, linebacker Reggie Carter, out on the edge at the weakside spot, where he can be used to blitz better.

Last week safety Bret Lockett didn't have a good game, essentially responsible for giving up two passing touchdowns to Arizona. We've heard that the UCLA defensive coaches were adamant that Lockett improve this week, and it's key that he does, especially since UCLA is still working in a true freshman at the other safety spot in Rahim Moore.

Advantage: Fresno State. One unit is struggling and one put up 55 points last week. But if it were that simple, they wouldn't have to play the game. There are some factors here that point toward UCLA – like Walker not having to deal too much with multiple receiver formations and being able to stay in his base defense more often. You can expect Fresno State to recognize that Walker's defense is susceptible to multiple wideouts, and will go to that as often as it sees fit, but FSU's offensive approach is to do what it does well and let the defense adapt.

It also is advantageous for UCLA that FSU has lost two starters on its offensive line within the last couple of weeks. The Bulldogs have given up 7 sacks so far, and have uncharacteristically allowed defenses to put pressure on Brandstater, at least more than was normal last season. Both of those losses to injury are in Fresno State's interior line, where the strength of UCLA's defense resides in defensive tackles Brigham Harwell and Brian Price. BYU and Arizona saw the havoc Harwell and Price created against Tennessee and used double teams to neutralize them, which they did relatively well. But when you're trying to double team two good ones like Harwell and Price with second-string OLs, and it's not effective, your battle on the line of scrimmage is starting at a deficit.

We're still giving this match-up to Fresno State, but there are indications here that it could be fairly close.

On Special Teams, redshirt freshman kicker Kevin Goessling (FR, 6-0, 190) has missed every attempt beyond 36 yards, while also missing a 35-yarder, being four for eight for the season. He has a strong leg and they'll attempt a field goal with him most of the time within 55 yards. The punter, Robert Malone (SO, 6-2, 215), has been an effective weapon in the field position wars, averaging 44 yards per punt.

UCLA's poor punt return coverage against Arizona was a huge factor in the loss last week, so UCLA special teams coach Frank Gansz, Jr. has been on the team's case this week in practice. Luckily, FSU is averaging just 4 yards per punt return from Marlon Moore. A.J. Jefferson (JR, 6-0, 190), who is also a cornerback, is averaging 32 yard per kick-off return, so UCLA's challenge could be in kick-off coverage this week.

Prediction

Fresno State is a bit over-rated. It's easy to understand why – they have essentially the same offense as the one that did so well last season. But if you look closer, the Bulldogs lost quite a bit on defense from last season.

Then, throw in the loss of FSU's two starting defensive tackles and the defense is highly suspect – at least for this week.

Then, also throw in the loss of two starting offensive linemen, which, in Fresno State's run-oriented offense is the heart and soul of the team, and the offense then has some questions, again, for this week..

The Bulldogs are vulnerable enough, in key match-ups, for UCLA to be in this game. The Bruins will have to be able to run the ball, which you think they will be able to do – at least to a degree -- and win the possession battle.

It's key that UCLA also wins the field position battle. After last week, you would expect that the UCLA special teams has sharpened up in terms of its punt coverage. And FSU doesn't have particularly spectacular special teams themselves. Expect Aaron Perez to be a weapon in this one.

Then there's the match-up of Walker's defense against a non-spread offense. It'd be interesting to do the research to see UCLA's win/loss record, at the Rose Bowl, against teams that didn't use a spread offense during Walker's time as defensive coordinator. It's probably heavily in favor of UCLA and Walker.

Then, of course, UCLA will need to limit turnovers, since they don't have a great deal of wiggle room for error.

There's also the factor that, as UCLA continues to play younger players, they'll continue to improve once they get comfortable. It's not necessarily a game-making factor, but it definitely is one for teams that are utilizing many younger players, like UCLA.

As we've said, UCLA will have to "steal" victories this season, and this game looks like one that is very stealable for the Bruins.

UCLA 27
Fresno State 24


Bruin Report Online Top Stories