This is the eighth in a series of articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at Fresno State.
BY DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer
You have got to love Fresno State coach Pat Hill. Challenge him and he'll accept every time.
Play three BCS teams on the road in a single season? No problem. Play the No. 1 team in the country? Bring it on.
It's that attitude that has turned Fresno State into one of the most respected football programs in the country. The Bulldogs will go anywhere to play, but few teams want to play them at home. Kansas State, in fact, canceled their game scheduled for Fresno this year after the Bulldogs whipped them in Manhattan last season.
Well, the Bulldogs, ranked 25th in the preseason poll, have huge challenges awaiting them. Fresno State opens the season Sept. 1 at national power Rutgers, hosts Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin 12 days later and then goes on the road to face Toledo and UCLA. That's not a schedule for the faint of heart.
It's what Fresno State fans, coaches and players emrace.
"It goes with the territory," said Hill, who is entering his 12th season at the helm. "People have high expectations for our program. I'd rather not have a target on our chest, but we can't do anything about that. We want to play as tough of a schedule as we can.
"We are used to playing tough schedules. Our players like it. They love the challenge. We have to take care of business every time out. Our playoffs begin around Labor Day. We are looking forward to the challenge."
Fresno State has never won an outright WAC title, tying for the top spot in 1999. Obviously Hill would like to change that. He doesn't dispute the fact that playing such a rugged nonconference schedule has hindered his team's chances to win a conference title.
Be that as it may, don't expect Hill to change his thinking anytime soon. He knows that to get into a BCS game, you have to play some BCS schools and win those games along with your conference games. Playing in the WAC with a wimp nonconference schedule won't get a team into a BCS game.
The Bulldogs return 10 starters that averaged 32.8 a contest and were second to Nevada in rushing offense.
The good news is that Ryan Mathews (866 yards, 14 TDs), Anthony Harding (449 yards, 4 TDs) and Lonyae Miller (609 yards, 7 TDs) all return. Kyle Duffy and fullback Reynard Camp, who will be used mostly to block, also are in the mix. Hill also likes true freshmen A.J. Ellis and Rashad Evans, a pair of Bay Area prospects, and Michael Harris from Chino Hills.
"The running back situation is as strong as it's been since I've been here," Hill said. "Clifton Smith was a big loss, but he's only been healthy one (full) year."
The offensive line returns virtually intact. The only loss was center Ryan Wendell, and he's likely to be replaced by either Joe Bernardi (6-2, 280), Andy McDowell (6-4, 290) or Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285). Hill admitted that snaps went all over the place during spring camp.
Reno native Bobby Lepori (6-5, 290) and Kenny Avon (6-3, 285) return at the tackles, while Cole Popovich (6-6, 290) and Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) return at guard. Hill likes the development of Kenny Wiggins at tackle (6-7, 300).
Tom Brandstater, the MVP of the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl, returns at quarterback. Brandstater threw for 2,654 yards and 15 scores last season. He's backed up by sophomore Ryan Colburn, redshirt freshman Matt Faulkner and true freshman Ebahn Feathers.
"He (Feathers) has good speed," Hill said. "You're going to see him, too." Hill admitted that he's thought about putting in an option package for Feather.
Brandstater and Co. suffered through a miserable 4-8 campaign in 2006. Hill said a lot of improvement has been made.
"All three of his receivers got hurt (in 2006)," Hill said. "We played with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. The only real weapon we had was Dwayne Wright. You have to have a supporting cast.
"His confidence was not really good. We won three of our last four that year. We got better those last four games of 2006. We won 12 of 16 going back to those last four games of 2006 and the 2007 season. They have a lot of confidence in each other now."
With a sound running game the past two years, Brandstater doesn't have to win games, just manage them.
At tight end is Bear Pascoe (6-5, 260), arguably the best in the conference. Pascoe caught 45 balls for 552 yards and four scores. Isaac Kinter (6-1, 240) had 10 catches for 79 yards.
Four wide receivers return to the fold " Seyi Ajirotutu (29 catches, 491 yards), Jason Crowley (22-199-1), Marlon Moore (48-694-5) and Chastin West (33-365-3).
The 'Dogs return six defensive starters " defensive end Wilson Ramos (6-5, 265), defensive tackle Jon Monga (6-2, 280), who had 6.5 sacks in 2007, linebacker Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225), who had 81 tackles, strong safety Moses Harris (6-1, 200), who had 62 tackles, free safety Marvin Haynes (65 tackles) and cornerback Damion Owens (6-1, 185), who had 42 stops and an interception.
Also back are defensive end Ikenna Ike (6-3, 245), strong safety Jake Jorde (6-2, 205), nose tackle Cornell Banks (6-2, 290) and cornerback Sharrod Davis (5-10, 190), who had eight pass break-ups in 10 games.
Chris Carter (6-2, 220) returns opposite Ramos at defensive end in the 4-3 alignment. A.J. Jefferson, the Bulldogs' kick-return specialist is slated to start at corner opposite Owens. Jefferson (6-0, 190) had 37 tackles last season.
That brings us to the linebacking corp. As of right now, Nico Herron (6-3, 240), Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) and Quaadir Brown (6-0, 210) are the starters. Brown finished with 51 tackles, while Jacobs totaled 81.
"Defense is the big question mark," Hill said. "We have a lot of young faces at linebacker. We have very good athletes there."
Robert Malone, who punted twice last year (36.0 average), takes over for Kyle Zimmerman. Place-kicker Clint Stitser, who graduated, is being replaced by redshirt freshman Kevin Goessling.
- Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281