Is it August 29 already? Yes. Yes it is. College football is officially here, and Rutgers gets to start the party early on Thursday night in California. RU decided to adopt the no-cupcake policy before joining the Big Ten, something that its B1G brethren have decided to ignore. Fresno State will be one of the more difficult opening games in recent memory, similar to UNC in '06 and Brian Kelly-led Cincinnati in '09.
Fresno State Bulldogs
Last year's record: 9-4 (lost to SMU in Hawaii Bowl)
Coach: Tim DeRuyter (10-4 record overall, 9-4 FSU)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Notable returning starters: QB Derek Carr, WR Devante Adams
Notable losses: RB Robbie Rouse, S Philip Thomas
This game will come down to weakness versus strength - Fresno State's offensive line v. Rutgers' defensive line and Derek Carr versus the RU secondary.
Derek Carr is no longer an unknown commodity. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards, 37 TDs, and only 7 INTs, Rutgers fans have spent the entire offseason reading about how David Carr's little brother will shred the new secondary to shreds. Not only does Fresno State return Carr, but the quarterback also returns his top two targets in Devante Adams and Isaiah Bruce. These two receivers combined for over 2,100 yards and scored 20 TDs. At TE, 6'6", 257 lb Marcel Jensen gives the Bulldogs yet another receiving threat. Unfortunately for RU, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, and Brandon Jones have the left the secondary to play on Sundays. Let me make one thing clear: Rutgers' rebuilt secondary will be more than formidable as the season goes on. I truly believe that Ian Thomas will be a shutdown corner by year's end. Week one is a different story. Carr will be a pro quarterback, and he will score against RU.
Don't head for the comments section yet to tell me I'm being too negative. It's time to talk about the Fresno State offensive line. That same line that opened like a sieve for Margus Hunt to record a ridiculous line in the Hawaii Bowl: three TFLs, two sacks, two FFs, three QB hurries, and a safety. That same line that lost its starting center and left guard from last year's unit. SMU was 6-6 heading into the game and proceeded to sack Carr seven times en route to a 43-10 blowout victory. Now, we should never glean too much info from a bowl game (cough, Louisville), but seven sacks to a .500 team is not a good sign, and having to break in a new starter this season doesn't bode well when you're going up against what could be the best defensive line in the American.
Darius Hamilton is ready to wreak havoc as the three-technique tackle, and Marcus Thompson predicts that he will get 20+ sacks this season BY HIMSELF. If you're looking for a battle to watch, head for the trenches and take a look at RU's pass rush feast on Carr. Could the Bulldogs gameplan for the Rutgers swarm? Absolutely. Tulane did so last season, as did Tyler Wilson towards the end of the Arkansas game. Derek Carr is a senior QB with plenty of experience and has shown he can sling the ball. But how long can he avoid the Rutgers defensive line? Setting the tone early with defensive pressure frazzles every quarterback, even Tom Brady. If Hamilton, Thompson, or Merrell can get the QB on the turf, he'll make mistakes. Furthermore, Robbie Rouse and his 1,490 yards are gone. Next best on the list last season was Marteze Waller, who rushed for 174 yards and 1 TD.
Defense is another story for Fresno State. Tim DeRuyter is a defensive guy who really did wonders for the Bulldogs. Here's an excerpt from Bill Connelly's preview:
DeRuyter's 3-4, meanwhile, attempts to confuse and cow you, relying on speed wherever he can find it to force quick decisions and mistakes. DeRuyter defenses pile up the tackles for loss, hack at the ball, and generally make life miserable. They can also get burned for big plays at times, and they aren't amazingly successul in power situations, but the gambles are mostly worth it.
Sound familiar? Aside from the 3-4 scheme, DeRuyter employs an aggressive D similar to the Rutgers swarm. He even has his defensive backs make plays in the backfield, evidenced by S Philip Thomas leading the team in tackles for loss (12). Where can Rutgers attack Fresno State on offense? Stick with what they know. The Bulldogs' defensive line is quite undersized, with most of the linemen under 6'2" and 300 lbs. Rutgers has a fairly stout offensive line with 6'8" Keith Lumpkin as a huge load at LT. Ron Prince's zone-blocking scheme should neutralize the smaller defenders, letting Huggins and Paul James rack up several five yard runs at a time.
Can Gary Nova capitalize on the success of the running game? Expect Coleman to be double-teamed, and maybe even a little hesitant after not taking any hits during training camp. Enter Leonte Carroo. Carroo is supremely talented, and I predict he'll start by the fourth game of the season. Not only does he possess the physical gifts you want in a receiver, he has the swagger to boot:
[I want to] make sure that by the end of this season, they're not just doubling Brandon [Coleman], they're doubling me. -as told to SNY.tv
This will be a close one, and if it wasn't the first game of the season, I'd be much more inclined to pick RU. It'll turn into a shootout for Rutgers' standards, but I see the Bulldogs edging the Scarlet Knights, 31-30. Three TDs from Nova with 1 INT, and 1 TD from Huggins with a lost fumble in the fourth quarter to set up Carr for a game-winning drive. If it was any other week, RU could win easily. But even if Coach Flood claims his team is ready, I'll have to see it to believe it.
Now it's your turn. You all have had several months to think about every play, every touchdown, every way the game could go. What is your prediction for the game? Leave a comment below, and don't forget to stop by the gamethread while you're watching!