August 28, 2008

Big East: Rutgers, Fresno State seek statement win

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Anyone, anywhere, anytime is the calling card for perennial BCS hopeful Fresno State. For Rutgers, maybe not.

Desperation brought coaches Pat Hill and Greg Schiano together for a critical opener for both teams.

When Rutgers and Fresno State meet Labor Day afternoon, it will be the biggest non-conference regular-season game in Schiano's tenure and a statement game for what is expected to be one of Hill's best teams at Fresno.

"Everybody in the country knows the history of Fresno State," Schiano said. "From people I know who are more familiar with West Coast football, they say this is Pat's best team in 10 years."

Schiano was wary of making the Bulldogs the first game of the post-Ray Rice era for Rutgers, but the coaches were in a similar position when they ran into each other at a coaching function during the offseason. Schiano was trying to find an opening game and Hill's first opponent, Kansas State, had just dropped a game against Fresno for a game against Montana State.

"It's not exactly what I was looking to do right out of the gate because I knew he had a very good football team," Schiano said. "We were trying to find a Division I(-A) opponent and there weren't many out there, and one thing led to another and we ended up with a game."

Fresno State has faced at least two major-conference teams on the road every season since Hill took over in 1997. The aggressive scheduling has led to its share of glory, with wins over Wisconsin and Colorado in 2001 and Washington and Kansas State in 2004.

Rutgers has gone 13-1 in non-conference games since 2005, but only six of those opponents went to bowls.

Schiano's misgivings about facing Fresno State are understandable. The Scarlet Knights are seeking answers at tailback, where they must replace Rice - the school's career rushing leader. Sophomores Mason Robinson and Kordell Young will get the first snaps, with redshirt freshmen Joe Martinek and Jourdan Brooks also getting some looks.

"It's a good chance to see how good we are," Schiano said.

  • BEST MATCHUP
  • Rutgers passing game vs. Fresno State secondary. Whoever wins this matchup could win the game. Win it convincingly, and big things could follow for the rest of the season. With Rice gone, quarterback Mike Teel is the new leader of Rutgers' offense. Wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood will challenge a Fresno State secondary that was solid last year but managed only four interceptions. If Teel adjusts to being the focus of the defense from game to game, Rutgers can contend in the Big East. If Fresno can shut down Rutgers' passing game, they become a BCS contender.

    THE SCHEDULE
    THURSDAY
    Eastern Kentucky at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.
    Hofstra at Connecticut, 7:30 p.m.
    SATURDAY
    Bowling Green at No. 25 Pittsburgh, noon
    Syracuse at Northwestern, noon
    Villanova at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
    Tennessee-Martin at South Florida, 7:30 p.m.
    SUNDAY
    Kentucky at Louisville, 7:30 p.m.
    MONDAY
    Fresno State at Rutgers, 4 p.m.
  • PLAYER TO WATCH
  • Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell. He waited behind Brian Brohm for the two years for his chance to start. Now that his long wait is over, the task of bringing the Cardinals back to the Big East elite falls on his shoulders. Don't underestimate the importance of the opener against Kentucky. With Cantwell's help, Steve Kragthorpe can start winning over the masses by beating the rebuilding Wildcats.

  • WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
  • "I'm the same guy as a head coach as I was an assistant. I'm not going to get all hyped up and charge out of that helmet and trip and fall and embarrass myself." Bill Stewart on his first game as West Virginia's coach

    "He's probably our most valuable player outside of Patrick White. He's a backup running back, the starting slot, he's a kick returner, he has a great head on shoulders. He could probably go in there and play quarterback. We're going to do more than throw bubble screens to him. We're going to try to get the ball to him downfield. We're going to get the ball to Jock Sanders somehow. He's going to be exciting." Stewart on Mountaineers sophomore Jock Sanders

    "That wasn't a very good night. That's for sure. That was a long night." Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, who lost his Huskies debut 56-17 to Hofstra on Sept. 4, 1999. UConn opens with Hofstra tonight

    "Right out of the box, the guys understand the importance of it. They've talked about it all year long, and they've talked about it in training camp. I'm sure it's the same situation over in Lexington right now. I like opening up with this game." Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe on opening with Kentucky. Louisville lost 40-34 to Kentucky in the third week of the season last year.

  • ETC.
  • Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk's latest appeal for a sixth season of eligibility was denied Wednesday evening. Mauk will now appeal directly to the NCAA reinstatement committee for a sixth season. Connecticut tailback Andre Dixon (ankle) is likely to miss the opener against Hofstra. South Florida tailback Mike Ford rushed for 645 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, but he has been beaten out by Benjamin Williams for the starting job. Louisville's Trent Guy, a projected starter at wide receiver, practiced this week and will be a game-time decision. He was shot in the lower back outside a Louisville night club July 5. First-year West Virginia coach Bill Stewart was 0-3 in season openers during his coaching stint at VMI from 1994-96. Seeking more production at wide receiver, Connecticut may have found the answer in redshirt freshman Kashif Moore. He beat out senior D.J. Hernandez for the starting job in the final weeks of fall camp. If Syracuse has any hope of improving, the Orange need tailbacks Delone Carter and Curtis Brinkley to stay healthy and produce. They missed a combined 16 games last season and are listed as co-starters on the depth chart along with Doug Hogue. All three of Louisville projected linebackers true freshman Dexter Heyman, and junior college transfers Antwon Canady and Jon Dempsey will be playing in their first college game Sunday. Meanwhile, Cardinals senior linebacker Mozell Axson will miss the season with a torn ACL.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

    David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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