Fresno wants its turn in BCS
By Stephen Tsai
By Stephen Tsai
Fresno State football coach Pat Hill should feel like the guy whose invention made money for someone else.
Before Boise State's fiesta at the Fiesta Bowl, which ended with star running back Ian Johnson taking a knee and proposing to his girlfriend, and Hawai'i's Sugar rush last year, Hill fostered a dream in which a Western Athletic Conference team competed in a lucrative Bowl Championship Series postseason game.
Hill scheduled tough, unafraid to play road games against top-caliber teams.
It was an all-in strategy: Go undefeated against a tough row of foes, and the BCS check is in the mail. To lose, of course, means the dream could die in September. Hill insisted his plan made horse sense.
"I watched 'Sea Biscuit,' " he said. "Why not the little guy?"
Or, as what has become the Bulldogs' motto: "Why not us?"
But Boise State and UH outraced Fresno State to the patent office.
"They just got it done before we did," Fresno State quarterback Tom Brandstater said. "I'm happy for Boise State and Hawai'i for doing it, (but) it was basically the map coach Hill was trying to get on. We want to follow their footsteps. We know now that it can be done. In a sense, there's a brotherhood with these teams. And when you're playing your big brother, you want to beat (him) real bad."
The Bulldogs still will try to do it their way, continuing to play a high-degree-of-difficulty schedule. Three of their first four games are on the road: Rutgers, Toledo and UCLA. Their other non-conference game is against Wisconsin.
"That's the way we like it," Fresno tight end Bear Pascoe said. "We'll play the best anytime."
He added: "Why set the bar low? Shoot for the stars."
Their fans became star-struck when the Bulldogs won their final three games last season, including a 40-28 victory over Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl. As the season ticked away, fans began to chant: "B-C-S! ... B-C-S! ..."
"BCS" signs are up in the parking lot.
And then last month, the Fresno State baseball team won the NCAA championship, the school's first national title by a men's team.
Pascoe said fans "cheer on the baseball team, and they say, 'It's your turn.' Yeah" — he rolled his eyes — " 'we've got next. We play the winners.' Oh, yeah. Everybody wants that. They want to see us do good and compete and achieve great things."
In the coaches' poll, which was released during last week's WAC Football Preview in Salt Lake City, the Bulldogs were picked to finish first this season.
Still, Brandstater said, "We know to win the WAC, it has to go through Boise and Hawai'i. We're not naive to think it's going to come from anywhere else but that. We know to win our league it's going to take an unbeaten season in our conference."
The Bulldogs host the Warriors Oct. 4 and travel to Boise State Nov. 28 for the nationally televised regular-season finale.
Pascoe said: "This year, the bigger rival will be Hawai'i, just for the fact they beat us the past two years. And they danced on the (field logo of the) dog. I'm over that."
He then rolled his eyes.
"It's always a good game with Boise," Pascoe added. "They beat us the past two years, too. But they didn't dance on our dog."
Here's a look at the WAC teams, in order of predicted finish by the coaches:
FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS
Head coach: Pat Hill
2007 season: 9-4, 6-2 WAC
Dates to circle: Opener at Rutgers, which was a late replacement for cluck-cluck Kansas State, which announced in the spring it would cancel the scheduled game. Many expect the meeting against Boise State to be for the WAC championship.
Quick take: After a difficult loss in 2006, Hill made his players return to the field to stare at the scoreboard. He wanted them to hurt so good. "We've come a long way," said quarterback Tom Brandstater, who was the target of home-crowd boos that year. Now Brandstater, the MVP of the Humanitarian Bowl, leads an offense that returns all but one starter.
A Bulldog story: "Bear Pascoe is Bear Pascoe," Brandstater said of the league's top tight end. "He's the man, the myth, the legend." The birth certificate reads, "McKenna Sean Pascoe," but when you have a 15-inch chest at birth — "(Mom) reminds me of that more than anything else" — then you're reborn as Bear. "I actually know two girls named McKenna," Pascoe said. "That's another reason I go by Bear all of the time." Pascoe is a college rarity. He does not play video games. "I've sat down and tried to play Halo. I've tried to play Madden, all of that. I can't do it." Instead he prefers to hunt. "I've yet to get me a bear," he said. "If I ever do, I'm going to get a bear rug made, make it into a big robe so the head comes over the top. OK, maybe not."
BOISE STATE BRONCOS
Head coach: Chris Petersen
2007 season: 10-3, 7-1 WAC
Date to circle: In 2006, the Broncos paved the way for a BCS run with an early season rout of Oregon State. The Broncos could receive a boost when they play OSU's rival, Oregon, on Sept. 20.
Quick take: Petersen, who flew with the Blue Angels last week, knows life is not easy at the top. The standards are high when 77 percent success is considered to be a down year. But when the Broncos lose as many WAC games — one — as they did in the previous five seasons combined, and when they close with back-to-back defeats at Aloha Stadium, there are loose strings in the cloth of invincibility. But running back Ian Johnson, the country's leader among active players in career rushing yards, is back to good health, and there is confidence that a capable starting quarterback can be selected from among Bush Hamdan, Nick Lomax and Michael Coughlin. The Broncos have been this century's highest-scoring I-A team.
A Bronco story: Johnson crochets. He is a soccer fan who does not play soccer and roots for Turkey. He is a home owner (his father made a large down payment, but he and his wife pay the mortgage and the house is in their name). He also is highly motivated. "It comes from us not taking the WAC last year," Johnson said. "It comes from having an internal injury last year. It comes from losing three games. It comes from watching the gap between me and the (running backs) behind close so much." Johnson gained 22 pounds, and now weighs 207, while maintaining his speed (4.48 seconds over 40 yards).
NEVADA WOLF PACK
Head coach: Chris Ault
2007 season: 6-7, 4-4 WAC
Date to circle: The most difficult game is the one following a meeting in Hawai'i. But there's a bye between games against UH and Fresno State. The Nov. 7 nationally televised game against Fresno State, which plays at Louisiana Tech six days earlier, is an upset in the making.
Quick take: The league's best two quarterbacks are on the same roster. Colin Kaepernick will practice with the first team and Nick Graziano, who missed the final nine games and was a bystander in spring training, will be with the No. 2s when camp opens next week. But Ault said the competition is open, declaring: "I am not a two-quarterback coach." First-year defensive coordinator Nigel Burton is implementing a 4-3 alignment.
A Wolf Pack story: From his point of view, running back Luke Lippincott tries to envision views of points. Encouraged by his father, a sports psychologist, Lippincott uses visualization techniques to prepare for games. He employs the method during video sessions. "I'll close my eyes and picture myself making a move on the last guy, or breaking the tackle somehow, or doing something to get more yards," Lippincott said. "It's actually carried over to the point where I'll watch highlights of Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings), and try to picture myself doing that." He uses the out-of-body method, watching from a television viewer's angle, as if he were looking at someone else." Last season, he rushed for 1,420 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.
Head coach: Greg McMackin
2007 season: 12-1, 8-0 WAC
Date to circle: The Warriors will stay in El Paso in the week between consecutive road games against Utah State and New Mexico State. It's difficult to live out of a hotel that long; it's even more difficult to then face New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook.
Quick take: The Warriors must replace the Fab Five, Part II — quarterback Colt Brennan and the four starting receivers. It will take up to two weeks to select Brennan's successor from a pool of returnees (Inoke Funaki, Tyler Graunke) and junior-college transfers (Greg Alexander and Brent Rausch). Funaki has looked the best in offseason workouts, and Alexander's footwork improved after he lost 10 pounds. But only Graunke has started a Division I-A game and thrown a TD pass in the Sugar Bowl.
A Warrior story: Right-side linebacker Adam Leonard has twice played a season despite serious knee injuries. Last season, he made 105 tackles and four interceptions despite a fracture in his right hand that required a cast when he was not playing. But there's one thing he will not do: bodysurf at Sandy's. "I went there a couple of times, and I haven't been back," said Leonard, who was raised in the Seattle area. "I got in the water. I got pounded a few times. It was definitely discouraging, with the waves breaking right on the shore. It's nasty."
LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS
Head coach: Derek Dooley
2007 season: 5-7, 4-4 WAC
Date to circle: Smack in the middle of the WAC season is the Oct. 25 non-conference game against Army. That will mess with a team's flow.
Quick take: Dooley admitted to being "disappointed in how we threw and caught the ball" last season. The answer might come from Cyberspace. Taylor Bennett is eligible to play this season after graduating in four years from Georgia Tech. The NCAA allows no-penalty transfers for graduate students with remaining eligibility. Bennett was drawn to Tech's Center for Secure Cyberspace, a curriculum, according to Tech officials, that is aimed at "developing technologies to be used by the military or the private sector to ensure cyber activities remain secure." A nearby Air Force Base is being used as the country's Cyber Command. Dooley will be doubly busy. He is now Tech's athletic director.
A Bulldog story: Patrick Jackson rushed for 950 yards last season. Each one was painful. Jackson had a turf toe on his right foot, making it excruciating when he cut. Specially padded shoes did not ease the pain. At least he is over the pain of being snubbed by Louisiana State. He grew up 30 minutes from the Baton Rouge campus, where he attended football camps and took a few unofficial visits. Several of his older teammates signed with LSU. At the time, Dooley was an assistant. He did not offer Jackson an LSU scholarship. "Then when I found out he was (going to) Tech, it was like, 'You couldn't avoid me.' "
SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS
Head coach: Dick Tomey
2007 season: 5-7, 4-4 WAC
Date to circle: Don't expect much in the Sept. 6 game at Nebraska. But the Spartans have a chance to make a statement against Stanford two weeks later.
Quick take: Tomey's teams have paid for the academic problems of the previous regime, absorbing monster scholarship penalties from the NCAA over low academic progress rate scores during a four-year cycle. "The penalties are severe," Tomey said, "but we can manage them." The Spartans receive a boost from the return of five players who were not expected to play this season, including running back Yonus Davis, who was granted a sixth year, and center Justin Paysinger, who served as a student assistant in spring training while recovering from a back injury. They still have not settled on a quarterback. During spring training, competition was open — and live. The quarterbacks were allowed to be hit. "We're not going to wrap (them) in Cellophane," Tomey said.
A Spartan story: Jarron Gilbert joined as a tight end, moved to defensive end, and now is settled at defensive tackle. The flexibility did not extend to a yoga class. "I'm sitting there, and I'm the worst in the class," he said. "I'm the only guy in the class breaking a sweat." Gilbert participated in graduation ceremonies last month. Needing one elective credit to earn a bachelor's degree, he is enrolled in archery this fall. "Every Tuesday, I'll shoot a bow and arrow," he said, smiling. "It's right by the stadium. ... I can shoot the bow and arrow, then go back to work out."
NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES
Head coach: Hal Mumme
2007 season: 4-9, 1-7 WAC
Date to circle: The Aggies should be emotionally charged for the opener (Nicholls State), the trip to Nebraska, and then games against geographical rivals Texas-El Paso and New Mexico. The real test comes after a bye, when the Aggies face Nevada on Oct. 11.
Quick take: Because of injuries, nine starters missed a total of 35 games last year. More personal losses, for Mumme, came when his best friends on the staff — Herb Patera and defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer — retired. Mumme sought a Joe Lee Dunn-type to coordinate the defense. He ended up hiring ... Dunn. "We're excited about him," Mumme said of the former New Mexico head coach. Dunn will implement a 3-3-5 attacking defense.
An Aggie story: As one of the nation's most prolific quarterbacks, Chase Holbrook pondered an opportunity to apply for the 2008 NFL draft. But the ringless Holbrook did not want to leave empty-handed. "To be here two years and not make a bowl game is disappointing," he said. "I definitely wanted to come back and play in a bowl game." With an expanded rotation of seven to eight receivers, and a new defensive scheme, Holbrook is ready for a U-turn in fortunes. "It was fun setting records, and the numbers look cool," he said. "Three years ago it was cool. Now it's about winning games." Holbrook, a business manager, also has the recipe for success. "I have some seasoning my dad gave me," said Holbrook, who aspires to owning a restaurant. He said he uses it on steak and chicken. "I'm experimenting a little bit."
Head coach: Robb Akey
2007 season: 1-11, 0-8 WAC
Date to circle: It's a coin toss to determine the WAC's cellar team. The Sept. 20 game against Utah State should settle the matter.
Quick take: Seventeen players left the program, some for character-related issues, entering last season, Akey's first as head coach. "I was playing detective and principal," Akey said. Akey was the Vandals' third head coach in as many years, and making it to a second season without a changeover has proved to be energizing. The Vandals had a spirited spring. Center Adam Korby was voted team captain for the second consecutive year.
A Vandal story: Safety Shiloh Ke'o always wanted to play for the Warriors. Ke'o, who is part-Hawaiian, has several relatives on O'ahu, many living on the North Shore. "My dad was born and raised there," Ke'o said. "His father brought him to the Mainland. We've been here ever since, trying to re-populate the Mainland with us." Without a UH offer, he said, "it just happens I went to Idaho." Ke'o, who has been named a co-captain, has served as mentor to the 20 Polynesians on the team. He also leads them in the haka. "We've got a bunch of guys doing it," he said. "A lot of guys want to learn. We're starting off simple. We want to show our respect."
UTAH STATE AGGIES
Head coach: Brent Guy
2007 season: 2-10, 2-6 WAC
Date to circle: At the WAC Football Preview, commissioner Karl Benson declared Salt Lake City as a WAC city. The Aggies, based 30 miles away in Logan, will test that claim when they play Utah Sept. 13.
Quick take: Guy's first Aggie team had 56 scholarship players. Now they have the maximum 85. The Aggies also are set to move into their new facility, which has a 20,000-square-foot academic center, and a plasma-screen TV in every room. The Aggies hope to improve on these numbers: Last year, they had the fourth-quarter lead in six games, losing four of them. Guy said he will choose a starting quarterback after the Aug. 17 intrasquad scrimmage. As for the season's goal, Guy said: "Not give up a fourth-quarter lead."
An Aggie story: Right tackle Derek Hoke is used to taking tall orders. "Everybody asks: 'How tall are you?' " said 6-foot-9 Hoke, who worked as a server in a restaurant. "Some wanted me to come over and guess how much I weigh. They'll have guessing games to see who's right. I met a lot of cool people, although it was hard to fit in service stations." Hoke found he had plenty of elbow room on the offensive line in 2005. "There were seven (O-linemen) total for the spring (practice), and a couple got hurt," he recalled. "It went down to five. It was tough. But there were a lot of reps, and a lot of experience, and a lot of games."
Visit Tsai's blog at http://warriorbeat.honadvblogs.com.
Reach Stephen Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.