The Big Game is here - the biggest game in Fresno State football history. Up next, arguably one of the great college football teams of all-time over the past few years - the USC Trojans, with Heisman winner Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Lendale White, among so many other solid talents, a 31-game winning streak over 3 seasons, and the defending national champions going on two years.
For Fresno State, everything has gone according to plan. We are #16 in the nation, our highest ranking ever achieved at this point of a season (previously, we've been ranked high in the preseason, had some big wins and then blew it, dropping out of the rankings, or we slip in at the end of the season with a big bowl win). The only blip on our season has been the Fresno State collapse at Oregon early in the season, but in many ways that may have been for better rather than worse, in keeping the team focused and humble, and not having the pressure of being undefeated. Oregon has gone on to lose only one game all season, and that only to USC, and they are highly ranked in the BCS, so this has not turned out to be a bad loss in terms of national recognition or ranking.
This past week, we took care of the most pressing business before USC, and actually the most pressing business we had to accomplish this year, which was beating Boise State. Boise has beat and embarassed us for 4 years, including defeating us when we were undefeated and BCS-dreaming with David Carr at quarterback 4 years ago. Ever since, we've been getting handled by Boise State, and looking on the outside in as far as the national picture. No more. Nothing was more important than beating them this year, and we did it.
We not only beat Boise State, we whipped them. Our defense looked really solid, and has boosted my assessment of our prospects against USC. Before the Boise State game, I had serious doubts about our defensive capability to stop USC from putting up 50+ points on us. After seeing us basically shutout Boise State (for 55+ minutes), I have more hope for our prospects, but only in the sense of holding them to 35-40 possibly. If we can do that, hold them to 35-40, we have a chance to win, since USC's defense isn't quite as powerful as it's been in past years, they are hurting at linebacker, and if we play our best game, or a perfect game, we can put up 35-40 on USC.
The keys will be to stop Reggie Bush and Lendale White, which is not an easy task. In fact, White may be the bigger threat, as we have a lot of speed, but Lendale is a load very hard to bring down, definitely NFL caliber, and has great vision in terms of holes and cut execution. As for Bush, always dangerous, nothing more needs to be said, and stopping these two will be our biggest challenge (I would love it if Pete plays Bush more than White, as he tends to do sometimes for Bush's Heisman campaign). Crazy as it may sound, our best chance for victory is to make Leinart, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who should be starting in the NFL right now, beat us through the air, and hope for some breaks defensively in terms of turnovers (not likely to happen if USC is dominating on the ground, as neither Bush or White is a fumbler).
Meanwhile, our offense looks to be peaking right now. Running on USC will be harder than against any other team we've played, and we're going to need to be able to threaten them through the air throughout the game to stretch the field for Mathis and Sumlin. They're defensive secondary is a strength, and safety Bing is pro-caliber and 2006 1st rounder. We'll need to keep the safeties back, worried about the deep ball, while actually picking them apart more through the mid-range passing game. USC is inexperienced at linebacker right now due to injury, so if we can challenge and keep them guessing with effective pass routes in their area, we will then be more successful running the ball, since they will not be able to overplay the linebackers or safeties. If they do overplay, we'll have to punish them for it, and that's what I mean by playing our best or perfect game, in that we do not waste these opportunities with bad passes, drops, or failed pass protection/blitz pickups.
This blog will live this week, and maybe next if we want to talk about the game, and reflect on it, either in celebration or damage assessment. I'll be posting some analysis, as I've seen every USC game this year and have some ideas about how to approach them, and I always like to speculate on what Fresno ought to do. Feel free to comment and add your own analysis, including challenging my own.