(courtesy NBC "Tonight Show")
WHO: University of Cincinnati vs. Fresno State
WHEN: September 4, 2010
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium
KICKOFF: (In Cincinnati) 10:00 p.m.
SERIES: UC leads 1-0
LAST TIME: Bearcats won 28-20, 9/26/09
After watching the Sugar Bowl in limbo in January, Butch Jones is officially in charge on the UC Bearcat sidelines and it all starts with this opener in California. For the second consecutive year, the opener for the Bearcats is on the road and no cupcake.
Last season it all started with a Big East game at Rutgers which UC won handily. This season, it's not a league game, but it's a pretty good non-conference match-up against the team (next to Pitt) that came the closest to beating UC--Pat Hill's Fresno State Bulldogs.
It's the Butch Jones opener, but it's also a part of one of the more demanding Septembers UC has had since the days in the 80s when marquees "money games" against top opponents were scheduled to keep the program afloat. Now, UC is in that "name" category and they'll be featured on national television three times in September (on the road for this one in Fresno, at North Carolina State and at Paul Brown Stadium against Oklahoma).
"The Butch Jones Story" begins with the first installment on ESPN2 and ESPN3.com as the Bearcats try to stop Fresno State on their own field and perhaps try to find out what exactly is up with Coach Pat Hill's mustache. Neither will be easy.
Fresno State last year dominated the Bearcats in possession time 43 minutes to 16 with a successful ground game featuring Ryan Mathews (145 yards on 38 carries). Fortunately, Mathews is now a San Diego Charger, but one would have to assume Pat Hill would refer to that same game plan in this one.
For Bearcat history buffs, it was Craig Carey who "iced" the game with a key interception as the Bulldogs had invaded the redzone for a potential tying score.
The big questions this season?
Can the Butch Jones offense sustain longer drives against Fresno State and still score enough points to beat the potent Bulldogs?
And, can UC's somewhat disrespected defense "cowboy up" out west and keep the Bulldogs from chewing up the clock with long drives?
If I had the answers, I'd certainly zip them off to Butch Jones in a jiffy. However, early games are often hard to judge and all of the pieces of the puzzle don't usually fall into place right away.
That said, I'll try to give you my honest assessment as always just as I would if we were sitting together in the stands somewhere. I won't offer bold numerical predictions because you typically "honk" someone off by doing so. On the other hand, if you read my previews thoroughly, you can usually guess where I'm leaning.
Now, in appreciation of the great Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, let's head to the "Breakdown", shall we?
UC OFFENSE VS. FRESNO STATE DEFENSE
Tony Pike threw for 300 yards against Fresno State last season, meantime Zach Collaros proved he could throw for over 400 yards when he replaced an injured Pike and obviously Collaros is the guy now. While Pike and Mardy Gilyard are both gone, much of last year's offensive attack remains with Armon Binns, D.J. Woods and Ben Guidugli catching the ball and Isaiah Pead running out of the backfield. That's not to mention the debut of USC transfer Vidal Hazelton (returning to California) and a healthy John Goebel who was a pass catching threat out of the backfield in '08. The interesting thing here will be the run/pass balance Coach Jones will use as ball control was one of the ways Fresno State kept last season's contest so close.
Another plus for UC is that this defense has the same problems the Bearcats do. Fresno State's reputation is on offense. Last year's squad was 95th in the nation in interceptions and 119th in sacks, those numbers don't bode well for facing an explosive offense. Looking to improve the numbers will be four-year starting LB Ben Jacobs (1st team All-WAC) and quick defensive lineman Chris Carter.
THE NOD: Bulldogs will play inspired at home, but UC has too much firepower.
FRESNO STATE OFFENSE VS. UC DEFENSE
Ryan Mathews is in the pros in San Diego, but the Bulldogs do return starting lefty Ryan Colburn at QB. Colburn managed the Fresno State offense in 2009, albeit handing off quite a bit to Mathews who ran for over 1,800 yards. However, Colburn can fling it and has a decent deep threat in Devon Wylie. While UC kept Wylie in check a year ago, four of Jamel Hamler's 37 catches came against UC and one was a touchdown. Colburn is the guy at QB, but it should be noted that Derek Carr, the brother of former Bulldog star David Carr is waiting in the wings. The plan is to redshirt Carr if possible, but as UC saw last year at Rutgers with Tom Savage, sometimes long term thoughts are shelved for short term results.
The loss of Mathews is significant, but Fresno State does offer up a change-of-pace (quicker) option in Robby Rouse who popped UC for 50 yards on five carries. Rouse is similar to UC's Darrin Williams in size and elusiveness. This could further be an issue as the Bulldogs return their starting offensive line.
The difference for UC could be the 4-3 scheme Jones has guided the Bearcats back to with a more physical, attacking emphasis. Most of UC's defense has significant game experience and I'm sure Derek Wolfe and JK Schaffer will have their teammates focused after a couple of ferocious hits. Your guy to watch on UC's defense this season is LB Maalik Bomar. Just a hunch, based on how I've seen players develop during my time around the program.
THE NOD: Because the game's in Fresno, I'll call this one a draw as you have untested questions on both sides of the ball. For UC to gain the edge, they'll have to do as they did last year in Rutgers and silence the crowd with early results.
Granted, UC has lost Mardy Gilyard's electric returns, but both Darrin Williams on kickoffs and D.J. Woods on punts have those same capabilities. Plus, Vidal Hazelton has displayed a knack for finding daylight that no one has (officially) seen yet. The Bearcat kicking game gets a boost in my opinion by having Jake Rogers focus on field goals and extra points, with Patrick O'Donnell taking over the punting. O'Donnell has (Kevin) Huber-like potential in hang time and distance.
Fresno State also has a pretty good kicker in Kevin Goessling (1st team All-WAC) who displayed a 49-yard foot in last season's game. Hill has told the Fresno Bee that punting will be, "unconventional". Whether that means rugby punts, punts out-of-bounds, or fakes remains to be seen until Saturday night. Speedy receiver Devon Wylie is the Bulldogs return threat.
NOD: Due to familiarity with conditions, I tend to side with the home team in the special teams area unless they're just simply awful. I have no evidence that indicates that, so give the Bulldogs the slight edge. On the other hand, if UC takes one "to the house", throw this prediction out the window because such plays are often big momentum changers that disrupt everything.
Obviously, Pat Hill has the "revenge" and the "home field" speeches in the can and ready to go. This game is for conference and non-conference respect for both teams. Both teams have been discounted by experts in the past and both teams would like to make strong statements for their conferences with a win in a pretty good time slot (10 p.m. here, 7 out west). Wherever there's TVs and games Saturday night, this one will be on and it could go a long way in influencing doubters. It will also be interesting to see how Butch Jones responds to the spotlight. In so-called "name games" at Central Michigan, he lost at Kansas, Clemson, Arizona and Purdue. He did though beat Michigan State and Mark Dantonio in East Lansing last season and you'd have to think the Bearcat talent supersedes what he was working with in Mt. Pleasant with the Chippewas.
The game looks like a virtual coin flip on paper. For the optimistic, I would direct you to Zach Collaros' track record as a starting quarterback (not just at UC).
Enjoy it and be ready to come out in force for Indiana State (and the return of Rick Minter) on the 11th.