Last Saturday, Cal dominated Fresno State at Candlestick Park. Sure, the score looked close at 36-21, but Fresno's defense helped keep the score closer than the game actually was. At halftime, Bulldog fans booed the team as on 14 of 16 drives, the offense was off the field after five plays or less. Sophomore Derek Carr completed 21 of 33 passes for just 142 yards. He was intercepted once, and was sacked four times. The offensive line was bad last year, and was even worse on Saturday after center Richard Helepiko left the game with an ankle injury. That started a mass reshuffling of the line, and the result was mostly chaos. Junior running back Robbie Rouse was the lone offensive bright spot, rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown.
You know that you've had a bad game when the coach singles out the punter as the bright spot of the game. And that was Fresno in the opener. But you can't afford to sleep on Fresno State; they have a history of playing big name teams tough, and a veteran coach like Pat Hill will have them ready to rebound. If Fresno State plays like they did last week, Nebraska should have an easier time this week...but I expect the Bulldogs to be better... much better. Below, you'll find the rest of our summer preview of Fresno State.
Fresno State is one of those mid-majors that most semi-knowledgeable football fans recognize as a legitimate quality mid-major football program. Pat Hill has been Fresno State's head coach since 1997, and has led the Bulldogs to bowl games eleven out of the last twelve years. Hill's scheduling mantra is "anyone, anywhere, anytime." Besides scheduling Nebraska this season, Fresno State plays Ole Miss and Cal. Last year, they defeated Cincinnati (28-14) and Illinois(25-23), but lost to Ole Miss (55-38).
Hill raised eyebrows at the end of last season by taking a pay cut of more than $300,000 in light of the budget problems facing the school. If the Bulldogs have a good season, bonuses may allow Hill to make more than last year, but that's definitely not assured. But 2011 might not be the season for Hill to earn those incentives, as Fresno State only returns five starters each on offense and defense.
Sophomore Derek Carr is expected to take over the helm of the Bulldog offense this season. You should recognize the name; his older brother David was the first player taken in the 2002 NFL draft after a record-setting career at Fresno State. The 6'3" redshirt sophomore completed 10 of 14 passes as a true freshman in backup duty in 2009. He's more of a dual-threat weapon than his older brother; Derek's arm may not be as strong as David's, but he's far more athletic. That's definitely a concern as the Blackshirts have shown a weakness with containing mobile quarterbacks.
Running back Robbie Rouse did an admirable job replacing first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Matthews last season. The sophomore started slowly last season due to an ankle injury, then exploded at mid-season. Against Louisiana Tech, Rouse carried the ball 43 times for 286 yards. But after a 217 yard performance against Nevada the following week, a rib injury limited him down the stretch. He still finished the season with 1129 yards and eight touchdowns rushing. UCLA transfer Milton Knox joins juniors Michael Harris and A.J. Ellis to give the Bulldogs a lot of depth at running back this upcoming season. They'll need that depth, as injuries hampered Harris, Ellis, and Rouse at various times in the past year.
At receiver, the Bulldogs don't have much size, but seem to have speed across the depth chart. Junior Rashad Evans is the team's leading returning receiver. Evans caught 39 passes last season for 424 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore Jalen Saunders caught 30 passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Keep an eye on 6'2" redshirt freshman Josh Harper, who turned down several scholarship offers from Pac-12 schools. He might become that middle threat that forces defenses to defend the entire field.
With a young quarterback like Carr, protection by the offensive line becomes even more important...and that's perhaps the biggest offensive problem the Bulldogs face. Consistency in pass protection was non-existent, as the Bulldogs gave up 36 sacks last season. If you look at the stats, they do a fine job opening up holes in the running game, but were a sieve in the passing game. They'll look to senior left tackle Bryce Harris to up his game as the sole returning full-time starter on the line. One name to keep an eye on is former Nebraska lineman Quentin Toailoa, who left Lincoln after his redshirt freshman season in 2009; he may see some time at right guard.
The defensive line looks to be decent by Western Athletic Conference standards. Logan Harrell will lead this group, and he may move across the entire line, but play mostly as a tackle. The 6'2" 280 lb. junior has 10.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss last season. The Bulldogs may be hoping for a quick impact from true freshmen Ronald Ussery and Donovon Lewis as well, especially against Nebraska. The Bulldogs simply don't match up well against mobile quarterbacks and teams that like to pound the ball. Ole Miss ran for 425 yards last season on this group.
At linebacker, the Bulldogs return Travis Brown and Kyle Knox on the outside, but must find a replacement for leading tackler Ben Jacobs at middle linebacker. That role likely goes to sophomore Jeremiah Toma. This group might be better against the pass this season, but that likely won't help them against Nebraska. In the secondary, the only returning starter is junior free safety Phillip Thomas, who accounted for 64 tackles and a team-leading interceptions last season.
Senior placekicker Kevin Goessling is a Lou Groza award candidate who kicked 21 field goals last season. If the Blackshirts can force the Bulldogs to punt, punter Andrew Shapiro won't tilt the field with his 37.4 yard average, but can pin you deep with his high punts.
On paper, this looks like a bit of a mismatch if Nebraska can exorcise their offensive demons from the last part of last season. Many in the B1G will be eyeballing how Nebraska defends the Fresno offense, especially on the ground, as some compare the Bulldogs up front to a Big Ten line in the rushing game.