Friday, December 30, 2005

CUSA 1st vs WAC 4th: Liberty Bowl Preview

as posted on the Barkboard

The Boise State win is long gone. The ESPN Instant Classic against USC is still a loss, no matter how you look at it. Back to back losses at Nevada and at home versus Louisiana Tech are still very fresh in the minds of Bulldog fans. Now Fresno State must play in a bowl game against former Western Athletic Conference pasty but 2005 Conference USA champion, Tulsa. It is not just any bowl game, but the historic Liberty Bowl from Memphis on New Year’s Eve. What Bulldog team will show up, the one that took USC to the wire at the Coliseum or the one that was embarrassed at home by Louisiana Tech?

The Fresno State seniors have never lost a bowl game, and Paul Pinegar could be the first starting quarterback in NCAA history to win four consecutive bowl games. Will that be motivation enough to beat Tulsa? Hardly, the Bulldogs must dig deeper. Losing at Nevada could be forgiven considering the heartbreak the week before against USC, but the Louisiana Tech loss was utterly disappointing. Fresno State must redeem themselves and their coach, Pat Hill. Hill has stated that he takes full blame for his team’s lackluster performances.

Tulsa is not the same team that was kick around by the Bulldogs four straight years from 1999-2002 in the WAC. Coach Steve Kragthorpe became the head coach in 2003 and has never faced Fresno State. In his first year at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane went 8-4 (6-2) in the WAC and nearly pushed the Bulldogs out of the Silicon Valley Classic. The WAC guarantees its top two teams bowl games. Fresno State and Tulsa had the same conference records in 2003, but Tulsa had the tiebreaker. Luckily for the Bulldogs, WAC champ Boise State accepted a bid to the Fort Worth Bowl which opened up the then Humanitarian Bowl for Tulsa.

The Golden Hurricane fell to 4-7 last year, but has rebounded nicely in its first year in Conference USA. Tulsa backed into the conference championship after league favorite UTEP lost back to back games to end the season. They made the most of their opportunity by tearing apart a decent Central Florida team on the Golden Knights home field. Tulsa is a very hot team, while Fresno State is not. The Bulldogs are still more than a touchdown favorite, but some prognosticators are predicting a Tulsa win.

Tulsa is led by sophomore quarterback Paul Smith. Smith is not going to beat teams himself, but is an effective leader of the offense and makes few mistakes. His main target is All-American tight end Garrett Mills. Mills is one player that can take control of a game. There is not a better pass catching tight end in the country, and his ability rivals that of former Virginia Cavalier tight end Heath Miller. Kragthorpe just needs to pop in a tape of last year’s MPC Computers Bowl to see how to attack the Bulldog defense with the tight end.

The Golden Hurricane runs a balance two-tight end attack. Smith has thrown 19 touchdowns against just six picks. The running game is done by committee, with Uril Parrish leading the way with over 700 yards rushing. Fresno State’s run defense has been less than spectacular since the Boise State game. Giving up 294 yards to Reggie Bush is acceptable, per se, but letting Nevada’s backup rack up over a 100 yards and 4 tds is unacceptable. Louisiana Tech was able to run against a once great Bulldog run defense, as well. Tulsa’s backs are just as good as Louisiana Tech’s, and their offensive line is just as big, led by first team all-CUSA stud, Jesse Stoneham.

The Tulsa offense will center on Mills. If Fresno State can contain him it would be huge. There is not another receiver on Tulsa’s roster that has over 400 yards receiving. Senior Ashlan Davis is the second leading receiver, but is more of a threat as a kick returner. On the other hand, both of Tulsa’s leading rushers are tied for third on the team in receptions. There are few game breakers on this Golden Hurricane team, but their scheme is diverse enough to give the Bulldog defense fits.

Defensively, Tulsa uses a 3-3-5. Fresno State has not faced this type of defense this year, and Tulsa did not implement this defense until 2003, when Kragthorpe became head coach. It has been very effective against the pass, but it is vulnerable against the run. Great running teams have had tremendous success against the Golden Hurricane defense this year. Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney had a field day against them on opening day, and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had his best game of the season against Tulsa. Fresno State’s running game is more than capable of running the ball down the throat of the Tulsa defense.

Special teams could be a difference maker. Fresno State has had some of the best in the nation, but they have been far from great the last couple of games. Tulsa’s Davis set an NCAA record last year with 5 returns for touchdowns, including a streak with one in four straight games. Davis has only one return for a touchdown this year, but still was named first team all-CUSA as a kick returner. Fresno State’s Adam Jennings is no slouch, either. He has yet to take back a kick or punt for a touchdown this year, but was also named first team all-conference as a kick returner. Bulldog kicker Kyle Zimmerman is adequate but lacks the leg strength to kick anything beyond 40 yards. Tulsa’s kicker, Brad DeVault has the upper hand if the game comes down to a field goal.

Kragthorpe has turned around the Tulsa program, and has them in a bowl game for the second time in three years. A win over Fresno State would be considered a huge victory for the program, maybe even bigger than the CUSA championship win over UCF. Fresno State meanwhile is expected to win and a loss will be not be easily forgiven. Hill has to coach his best game because Kragthorpe will have his team ready. Some think Kragthorpe is the hottest coach on the market from a non-BCS school. A big win over Hill and his Bulldogs will substantiate that.

The game will come down to what the Bulldogs do on offense. The loss of fullback Roshon Vercher hurts the running game, but the Bulldogs should still be able to control the line of scrimmage. If the coaching staff decides to lead with the pass, and abandon the run, it could prove to be ineffective. When Fresno State has run for less than 150 yards, they have lost. Pinegar is still capable of winning this game with his arm, but the Bulldogs are beaten up physically and mentally.

Tulsa is far more excited and motivated to play in the Liberty Bowl. If the Bulldogs can right the ship and return to the level of play that almost beat USC, Tulsa has no shot at a win. However, there is no guarantee that the Bulldogs will be ready to play this game and may face the same fate they did against Louisiana Tech. If it is the former then it will be an easy Bulldog win. If it’s the latter, then the Bulldogs could struggle and get embarrassed by the Golden Hurricane. I expect Fresno State to come out ready to play, but would not be surprised by a Tulsa win, either. My fearless prediction is, Fresno State 41, Tulsa 27.

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