There is no question that Fresno State is not the same team they were early last year. Not only is their quarterback from last year, David Carr, gone to the Pros, but their starting quarterback this year, Jeff Grady (sore hip), is not currently slated to play against Oregon due to an injury sustained in the team's season opening loss at Wisconsin. Further exacerbating Fresno State's offensive woes is the loss of the team's most productive receiver and punt returner, Bernard Berrian (strained knee), who was also injured at the Wisconsin game and not expected to play against Oregon. The fact is, the Bulldogs needed a blocked kick with two seconds remaining to avoid a devastating loss to the San Diego State Aztecs at home last weekend or they would have headed into the Oregon game with a 0-2 record. After two games, Fresno State ranks 100th, 80th and 85th nationally for rushing offense, total offense, and scoring offense respectively. Fresno State's second-string quarterback, redshirt freshman Paul Pinegar who is expected to start against Oregon, did a respectable job against San Diego State completing 21 of 35 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown while not throwing an interception. And, the Bulldogs are ranked 36th in the nation in passing offense after two games.
On the defensive side of the ball, Fresno State retains much of its old swagger from last year. It was the Bulldog's defense that held San Diego State to only 14 points last week and gave Wisconsin fits in a game decided by only a field goal the week before.
"They have great personnel," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti speaking of Fresno State's defense during Wednesday's media conference call. "Nick Burley upfront is a very active defensive end. He's as good a football player as I've seen. Sam Williams is a very active linebacker and their two safeties, Bryce McGill and Cameron Worrell are hitters.with those safeties, the flexibility of the safeties allows them to blitz or come from just about anywhere and cover people. They present some new problems that I'd like to have more than one week to prepare for."
According to Bellotti, the Bulldogs play a somewhat unconventional defense, which includes the use of a zone blitzing scheme currently prevalent in the NFL and safeties that play the left and right side of the field rather than the more traditional rover and free positions. They are also noted for their excellent team speed and athleticism.
"My initial impression is that they are very fast," said Bellotti. "They're aggressive. They pursue very well and when they come after you they bring it. I've been very impressed watching them on film."
Despite all of the challenge that Fresno State represents to Oregon, it might be that Oregon's biggest opponent this week may actually be itself. Although the Ducks clearly out manned Mississippi State last week winning 36-13 at home, there were some areas of weakness exposed that will need to be corrected if the Ducks are to realize their lofty goals. Against Mississippi State, Oregon was slapped with 13 penalties for 105 yards. The Ducks also seemed to lose some intensity in the second half of the game and at times didn't appear to mount much of a pass rush.
"We've talked (with his team) about the penalties," said Bellotti. "It was a combination - (some) of (it) exuberance, some of it youthful and inexperience, some of it being somewhat over aggressive, some of it retaliatory to certain things that occurred in the game and some of it was excessive celebration. None was correct and none was acceptable. We have to make differences. We have to play basically penalty free.
"I think that finishing the game (is important). The first half last week was a great dominant first half but our second half was not that way and whether it was a relaxation on the part of our team or playing second and third team guys, I don't want our level of play to drop off and I've got to impress that upon our players that when they get their opportunity it's important that we play at a certain level and not let that level drop."
There are many Oregon players getting the opportunity to play or start for the first time this year. Getting their first start on offense last week included junior Jason Fife at quarterback, junior Matt Floberg at fullback, junior George Wrighster at tight end, and sophomores Nick Steitz and Mike Delagrange on the offensive line. This amazingly represents the team's entire offensive backfield as well as one significant skill positions and two line positions and although some of these players have played in games in the past, they have not been part of the first team offensive unit until this year. On defense, Oregon started for the first time, senior Kai Smalley and sophomore Igor Olshansky at tackle, senior Garret Graham at outside linebacker, and junior Steven Moore and freshman Aaron Gipson at cornerback. The Ducks also played for the first time true freshmen Marques Binns at cornerback, and Terrence Whitehead at tailback in addition to Gipson. Junior transfer Junior Siavii also played at defensive tackle.
"I was pleased overall with the performance of our young inexperienced players and first-time starters," said Bellotti. "We're working very hard on getting better at little things, some of the technique issues. I think we are improving. It's (the Fresno State game) a whole new challenge and a whole new ball game. We know that Fresno State is a very good football program that has proven they can play and beat anybody in the nation. It's about Oregon football playing well."
Certainly Oregon is trying to establish its core starters, find its team identity and hone the abilities of its players to the fine edge necessary to slice through the brutal portion of its schedule beginning in October with Pac-10 play. I think the game against Fresno State represents an excellent opportunity for the Ducks to continue their continuous improvement exercise. The Bulldogs don't appear to be too formidable on offense and will field a strong defense that will test the character and strength of the Oregon offense. After this game the Ducks have two weeks of near smooth sailing as they face Idaho and Portland State at home before embarking on the road to Arizona.
After having tendonitis in his knee and missing most of fall camp and then only playing sparingly last week, senior wide receiver Keenan Howry is expected to start against Fresno State.
The last two times Oregon has played Fresno State, in 1996 and 1997, the games have been decided in favor of the Ducks in overtime.
Oregon's Mike Bellotti has hired two former Fresno State offensive coordinators, Jeff Tedford in 1998 (present head coach at California) and Andy Ludwig in 2002 (Ducks' present offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.) Bellotti also hired a former Fresno State defensive coordinator, Robin Ross in 1997 (Ducks' present special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.)