It is rivalry week in college football. The day when Ohio State takes on Michigan, Auburn battles Alabama, South Carolina plays Clemson, Oregon State is at war with Oregon, and etc. In my wildest dreams I never would have thought Fresno State would take center stage during rivalry week. How does a team from the pathetic Western Athletic Conference versus the number one team from the Bowl Championship Series rankings headline rivalry week?
The 16th ranked Bulldogs’ game at two time defending national champions Southern Cal is the buzz around the country more many reasons. No one is picking Fresno State to win, but many believe the Bulldogs will give the Trojans a tougher game than their nationally ranked cross town rival, UCLA.
Anyone who saw Fresno State jump out to a 27-7 lead on Boise State in a driving rainstorm has to believe the Bulldogs have a puncher’s chance in the Coliseum. The Bulldogs are playing their best football in coach Pat Hill’s nine years and are peeking at the right time. USC, on the other hand, is simply unstoppable, 32 straight games without a loss and counting.
Many would think the Trojans have everything to lose, but they have a lot to gain, too. A win over Fresno State will be their 15th straight over an AP top 25 ranked team. The only other school to have accomplished that is Oklahoma. The Bulldogs are getting a lot of national respect this week and USC would like to do nothing more than to squash the upset talk. A big win Saturday would all but guarantee a huge showdown in the Rose Bowl with Texas.
Fresno State has been getting national respect this week for their style of play. The Bulldogs do not run a scheme or gimmick offense, but line up and play football. There is nothing fancy about Hill’s style of football but hard hits and wins this year. Hill and Fresno State have also exorcised some demons that have been plaguing them the last four years.
Wins at Hawaii and against Boise State are bigger accomplishments to this year’s team than even a win over USC. For the last four years those two schools have been thorn in Hill’s side and have prevented him from parlaying huge wins over BCS schools into WAC championships. Win or lose Fresno State has already proved it hanged with college football’s best, evident by their close loss at, now 10th ranked, Oregon.
Hill could not have asked for a better scenario heading into the game at USC. The Bulldogs are nationally ranked, have wins over their two WAC rivals, and are as loose as a team can be before a big game against the best team in the country. There will be complaining about the outcome of this game, unlike the 1992 Freedom Bowl.
The 24-7 Fresno State win over USC in Anaheim was a great win for the program, maybe the greatest ever, but lets be realistic. Fresno State wanted that game more than USC and it showed on the field. That will not be the case in this year. USC has the best offense ever assembled in the history of college football, and an argument can be made that it is the greatest college football team ever. Fresno State will enter the Coliseum with its deepest and most talented team in the program’s history. This game will be a true measuring stick for the Bulldogs. Everyone will see where they rank among the best of the best in college football. There will be no excuses for USC overlooking the Bulldogs, and there will no excuses for Fresno State not being prepared or good enough for the challenge.
Can USC be beaten? The answer is yes. USC is unstoppable but no unbeatable. Notre Dame was the closest this year to doing the unthinkable. Notre Dame pounded the Trojans with a balanced attack, and won the battle of special teams. If USC has had a weakness this year, besides the injuries on the defense, it has been their special teams.
That is hard to imagine considering USC possess the best punter in college football in Tom Malone and has the illusive Reggie Bush returning kicks. But their coverage teams have been less than spectacular.
In their two closest games this year, at Arizona State and at Notre Dame, each team returned a punt for a touchdown against the Trojans. In those two contests the punt return was the key in turning around the momentum to their favor. It was moot, as the superior USC offense rallied for wins in both of those games, but it is still a chink in the Trojan armor.
It just happens that Fresno State has one of the best special team units in the country, if not the best. Hill was asked on his interview, Wednesday night on ESPN2, if there was one area where Fresno State would have to excel to beat the Trojans, what would it be? Hill’s response was special teams. Even without Lou Groza finalist Clint Stitser, Fresno State still has the advantage on special teams.
Defensively, no one has been able to stop USC. Arizona State, Notre Dame and Cal have been the only teams that were able to hold them to less than 40 points. Fresno State’s all-WAC defensive end Garrett McIntyre needs to have the game of his life, and he will, in order to put any kind of pressure on Matt Leinart. Leinart is as cool as they come. The Heisman Trophy winner has not had a bad game in his career, and I doubt he will disappoint Saturday.
Bush and LenDale White are the best one-two punch at running back in the country. Both are deserving of first team All-American honors and each is a game breaker. Bush is the all-purpose threat that can score anytime he touches the ball. White is the power North-South runner USC is accustomed to from the student body right glory days.
Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett have exceeded all expectations and are fast becoming one of the best receiving duos in college football history. If that is not enough, tight end Dominique Byrd is monster for any linebacker to cover, and USC will not hesitate to dump the ball off to fullbacks Brandon Hancock and David Kirtman. The offensive line is strong, athletic, and does a great job protecting the passer and opening holes for the backs.
Fresno State has one of the best defenses in the country. Since allowing 37 points in a loss at Oregon, the Bulldog defense has improved dramatically. They have only allowed one opponent to score more than 20 points besides the Ducks. The competition has not been that stiff since Oregon, but high scoring offenses Toledo and Boise State were held to a combined 21 points.
There will be some interesting matchups in the game. It will be intriguing to see how Fresno State’s speedy and athletic linebackers stack up against the Trojans backs and tight ends. The one worth the price of admission alone will be future NFL drafts picks Jarrett and cornerback Richard Marshall matched up against each other. The Bulldog defensive line has been playing magnificently while battling numerous injuries. They are finally healthy and face one of the best offensive lines in the country.
Aside from Notre Dame, USC has not faced a more balanced offense than what they will see Saturday from Fresno State. Paul Pinegar is one of the most efficient passers in the nation and has an emerging receiving corps led by Paul Williams. Wendell Mathis has become the feature back Hill has been yearning for to complete his pro-style offense. Last year’s starter Bryson Sumlin has accepted his secondary role and is still the go to guy for short yardage situations.
Fresno State has an undersized but nasty offensive line that relishes hard hitting battles. They will get their wish against USC. Despite injuries at linebacker, the so called average Trojan defense is improving. True freshman linebacker Rey Maualuga is fast becoming the next great USC defensive star after filling in for injured starter Oscar Lua. Lua returns to the starting lineup this week along with cornerback John Walker. Walker’s return creates a long jam in the secondary as converted safety Josh Pinkard has been a more than adequate replacement in his absence.
The old cliché goes, on paper the game will not even be close but statistically Fresno State matches up well. The only knock against the Bulldogs is their level of competition playing in the WAC. In their only game against a BCS team they lost. The Bulldogs have improved dramatically since their loss and have become a better team for it. Make no mistake; Fresno State will give their best effort ever during the Hill era. But, will they win? USC is on a mission and with so much at stake, head coach Pete Carroll is not about to be out coached against team that has a history of being a giant killer.
Fresno State will out gain and out first down the mighty Trojans and earn the respect of the nation, but no one will beat USC this year. In their quest to win three national titles consecutively, the Trojans will catch all the breaks at home. If the game was in Fresno or at a neutral site the outcome might be in doubt, but my fearless prediction is USC 41, Fresno State 28.