Fresno State is racked with injuries, so this comparison will be slightly different, looking at probable starters by position. We’ve met the Rainbows 39 times, beaten them 20 and have the awful 1985 game as the lone tie. The Bulldogs are 1-5 on the islands since ’95, but did beat them in Aloha the last time there.
Quarterbacks- remains the same; TB is healthy, as is Colt Brennan. The numbers here are likewise straightforward. Brennan is passing for 405 yards per game (2nd NCAA), has 26 passing touchdowns (tied-5th NCAA), and has completed 225 of his 328 attempts for a 68.6 passing completion percentage, and 8.6 yards per attempt. He has thrown 11 interceptions and been sacked 12 times. As a scoring offense, Hawai’i has scored 50 or more points in every home game this year, and no team has kept them under 42 points on the road. For Fresno State, Tom Brandstater has passed for 182 yards per game, has passed for 9 touchdowns and been intercepted 5 times. He has completed 140 out of 233 attempts for a completion percentage of 60.1, and is averaging 7 yards per attempt.
Advantage- Obviously, Hawai’i’s Brennan has ridiculous stats, and while much of the heisman talk has died down some, his numbers have still been video-game-like against every team they’ve played. Still, there are some interesting numbers to look at. Brennan and Hawai’i have faced the 48th, 84th, 96th, 102nd, and 103rd ‘best’ passing defenses in the nation, not including the 74th and 120th best passing D’s in the FCS; the best pass D they have faced all year has been UNLV who allow 211.9 pypg (but they still dropped 49 points on them). Fresno State comes into the game allowing only 192.9 passing yards per game, which is 24th in the country, so this will be the best pass D they will have faced all year (and will prepare them for Boise State at 17th nationwide with 186.4 pypg). This represents an advantage of sorts, but obviously not sufficient to expect to do much more but try to hold the Rainbows to under 50 points for the first time at home all year. The losses of OGs Popovich and McDowell, along with C Joe Bernardi, will mean their backups, likely Masse, Meeks, and Harris, may not provide the same protection to TB as the starters and he may be under more pressure.
Running Backs- This unit is completely torn up for the Bulldogs, which is obviously a huge problem since establishing the running game is always strategy #1 for Fresno State. Both Ryan Mathews and Lonyae Miller, the stars in the offensive backfield and 5th and 9th in the WAC in yard per game, respectively, are questionable for Saturday, and backup Jamal Rashad is out. If Mathews and Miller don’t play, the running game will largely fall on the shoulders of Clifton Smith, whose 40.8 yards per game comes off 62 carries and a 5.9 yard per carry average. He is coming off a career game with 126 rushing yards against Utah State (though he does have the memorable 189 yard punt-return game against Weber State from 2005). Also likely to become more important with the leaders out is Anthony Harding, whose 19.2 ypg average and low 3 yard per carry average would likely rise with more touches. On the Hawai’i side, Kealoha Pilares is their leading rusher with 36.8 yards per game on 50 caries, for 5.9 yards per carry. Also in the mix is Leon Wright-Jackson with 21.9 yards per game and also with 5.9 ypc.
Advantage- Even without Miller and Mathews, the Fresno State running attack should be stronger than Hawai’i’s, even if only because the ‘Bows run the ball so rarely and pretty much only to keep defenses honest. The concern is Hawai’i’s rushing defense, which is 17th in the country and 1st in the WAC, only allowing 102.5 yards per game on the ground. That surprising tenacity should cause problems establishing the running game and keep Smith and Harding from establishing the run, getting first downs, eating up clock and keeping their offense off the field as effectively as a healthy team might. I say that if either Miller or Mathews is able to play, it makes a big difference in the game’s outcome.
Recievers/ Tight Ends – Already a problematic unit for the Bulldogs, ranking 94th in the NCAA with 188.9 receiving yards per game, now that Chastin West is out, and Moore is in but playing hurt, along with the loss of Shannon Dorsey, it all puts the Bulldogs at an even greater disadvantage. But the biggest loss would be that of Bear Pascoe, whose 462 receiving yards this season is 11th in the country among tight ends, and who is probable for the game. Hawaii is a completely different story, with Ryan Grice-Mullen pulling in 952 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns, Davon Bess 748 and 9 touchdowns, and C.J. Hawthorne 519 yrds and 5 TDs. This is in contrast to Moore’s 315yrds and Seyi Ajirotutu’s 266. Hawaii is getting 532 yards per game, and the majority of it from this unit.
Advantage – Hawai'i. When a player has more ypg than the opposing team, you know you’re in trouble. When most of the starters are out or playing hurt for the game, you are really in trouble. But Fresno State does have one advantage- the aforementioned passing defense, which is one of the few areas not plagued with injury, with the exceptions of Jason Roberts and Terrence Dennis. While the D-line is really banged up, the passing D that is one of the best in the nation is mostly healthy, which might be expected to keep the UH passing game in check. A defense allowing 194 receiving ypg against an offense generating 461 ypg puts the offense in the advantage, but makes it more likely that they won’t score as much or as often as they have against other opponents.
Defenses- I have talked a lot already about the defenses for both sides, but a more detailed examination of each is revealing. Hawai’i is allowing the 2nd fewest points per game in the WAC after Boise at 22.4, while Fresno State is 3rd in conference allowing 26/game; nether is in the top 25 nationally in scoring D. Of course the injuries to the Fresno state line stand out strongly, with Ahijah Lane, Jason Roberts, and Ikenna Ike out or playing hurt, and Machado, Schenck, Talyor Smith, and Austin Raphael all out, meaning the Hawai’i running game can be more effective. Also a concern is the fact that the Bulldogs have only recorded a single interception all year, compared to Hawai’i’s 17 which is tied for the WAC lead. Interestingly, Fresno State has only allowed their opponents 78 first downs all year, 21st fewest in the nation. This may be particularly relevant against the Rainbows as their major efforts will be to control the game and have our D on the field as long as possible.
Advantage- Hawai’i. Their ground D is solid; our aerial D is solid. Fresno State does have certain situational advantages but overall the Hawai’i defense has allowed fewer points, yards and touchdowns than have the Bulldogs.
Special Teams- Fresno State is 9th in the country in average yards per kick return with 16.22, while Hawaii is 15th with 13.94. Fresno State’s returns are all Clifton Smith, while Devon Bess is the leader for the rainbows. A.J. Jefferson averages 36 yards per kickoff return, 2nd nationwide, while Hawai’i’s Ryan Mouton is tied for 8th with 31 yards per return; both have returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Hawai’i’s kicker Dan Kelly is tied for 30th in the NCAA with 78 points and is in 5th place for longest kick with a 54-yarder; Clint Stitser is tied for 61st with 62, though he is tied for 9th nationwide for distance with a 52-yard kick this year. Neither is in the top 50 in terms of field goal percentage.
Advantage- Fresno State. While both teams are in the top ten nationwide in several special teams categories, Fresno State is clearly ahead statistically. Jefferson is particularly impressive in returning kickoffs, and is a major threat for starting field position.
Coaches- Fresno State’s Pat “the Lineman” Hill is 82-54 (.658) coming into Saturday’s game. He’s 59-26 against the WAC, and 29-38 away from Bulldog Stadium. June “Screwdriver” Jones is 72-40 (.556) with a home record of 53-20, and is 43-24 in conference. Jones is 7-5 off a bye, which they are coming into this game.
Advantage- Fresno State’s Pat Hill is willing to take on anyone, anytime, anywhere, and will have his team more than ready for the #14 Rainbows of Hawai’i. Though there have been some questions as to his leadership by various fans of late, most concur that there are few who would prefer another at the reigns in a big game like this. June Jones, on the other hand, is a great coach, but does have Jeff Tedford to thank for being only #2 on the list of ‘good-coaches-who-are-also-complete-assholes.’
“Taste of the Town”- It’s Hawaii vs. California (State), Oahu vs. the San Joaquin Valley, Manoa vs. Fresno… never any love lost between these two schools or regions, and plenty interesting about both. Lets start with food. California produces its own meat, doesn’t get it shipped from ‘the mainland’. But, the seafood isn’t so great in the Valley, while you can probably get some bang-up sushi in the islands. But, they might put spam in it, which wouldn’t be fun. Can you get a big steak in Hawai’i? Not so much. But they do have smoking-hot women. So does Fresno, but… not really the same as Hawai’i.
Advantage- Fresno. I’m going with the place with good looking women and I can get a steak. Seriously, since there’s a lot of trouble I can get into with a post-colonial discourse here, I’ll just say that as cool as Hawai’i is, sun, surf and sand are sweet and all but we can get that in the Valley, too. I’ve made it abundantly clear elsewhere who my biggest rival is, but for most it’s Hawai’i, and all the Wahines out there aren’t going to sway Bulldog fans.
Conclusion- Milk Can and the 152 aside, this is Fresno State’s biggest conference rival, and they are at their highest perch ever, ready to be taken down a notch. Still, the Bulldogs are playing hurt and the Warriors may have their best team in a decade or more. No clear, rational analysis can objectively suggest that the Bulldogs are in a position to knock off the Rainbows from their lofty status as this year’s big Kahuna in the WAC; however, this is the part of the study where I radically depart from rational analysis and dissolve into ludicrous speculation and indefensible flights of fancy. Behind a fired-up TB playing the game of his life, the Bulldog secondary slows down the regularly high-flying Hawai’i offense while the running game and big plays by Smith allow the ‘dogs to match Brennan touchdown-for-touchdown until the final drive to secure the upset. My call is: Bulldogs 52 - Warriors 49.