Fresno State had a few players finishing up final exams for the fall semester Thursday, center Aaron Mitchell among them.
The Bulldogs, who went through a brief morning practice that was heavy on fundamentals and included extra reps for younger players in the program, will start to get into the game plan Friday and the meat of their prep for a Hawaii Bowl matchup against Houston.
Many to most, though, already have taken a peek at some film. Mitchell did.
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The senior likes to study in the offensive line meeting room, whether for school or for football. It’s quiet. It’s comfortable.
When he needs a break from class work, he can flip on some film, which is what he did for a first look at the Cougars and defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Since ending the regular season with 14 tackles, including nine solo and 3.5 for loss, in a victory over Navy, Oliver has won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in college football and become a consensus All-American.
Mitchell’s initial impression: “He plays with a great motor. That’s the first thing that popped out on the screen to me.
“For a guy that’s talked about a lot in the media and for how big he is, he plays with a motor. He flies around. He’s definitely about creating havoc.”
When I saw in the newspaper he was a first-team All-American, the little blurb they had about him was, ‘He’s almost impossible to block one on one’ and that’s what shows on tape.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford on Houston nose tackle Ed Oliver
Coach Jeff Tedford and the Bulldogs’ offensive staff have taken a much longer look, obviously, preparing a game plan for Houston. They make it clear that Mitchell’s is not a unique view.
“He’s one of the best players if not the best player we’ve seen on tape and that takes into consideration Alabama and Washington,” Tedford said of the Bulldogs’ toughest nonconference opponents in 2017.
“There are very similar guys at those places. The guy is a first-team All-American and it’s very deserving. He’s very quick, very powerful and really tough. When I saw in the newspaper he was a first-team All-American, the little blurb they had about him was, ‘He’s almost impossible to block one on one’ and that’s what shows on tape.
“He’s just really powerful and really quick, plays with great leverage and plays with his hands, runs to the football. He’s a first-team All-American player.”
The Bulldogs on Christmas Eve will have to execute a plan to deal with Oliver and a front seven that leads a defense that has allowed 23 points per game, second in the American Athletic Conference.
On the plus side, Fresno State has matched up against a number of defenses this season that play odd fronts, and there are some similarities between Houston and what the Bulldogs see on the practice field from their defense.
Schematically, they have banked reps against similar fronts and been well prepared all season for what opposing defenses throw at them. They rank first in the Mountain West Conference in fewest tackles for loss allowed (40) and second in sacks allowed (nine).
Houston nose tackle Ed Oliver, who won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in college football, has 37.5 tackles for loss in 24 career games. The 290-pound sophomore has had two or more tackles for loss in a game 12 times.
“We’ll have to find different ways to get at (Oliver), always keep a couple of bodies on him, limit the number of times you really keep him in one-on-one matchups because that’s where he excels,” offensive line coach Ryan Grubb said.
“Even for a 6-foot-2 guy, he has got really long arms. He can get around you and get into places on you that you really don’t want. He plays with a good motor. You can tell he has a passion for the game.”
Oliver is a piece to the puzzle – a big, quick, fast, strong, powerful piece. Grubb said he could be the best defensive lineman that he had ever seen on film. There is only other player in the debate – former Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, who went to Jacksonville with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
“We played the Gators down there and he was an animal,” Grubb said. “But I don’t think I’ve seen a get-off as good as Ed’s. As the ball is moving, he’s moving. He’s instinctive. He’s strong. He has good levers. He has it all.
“He won the Outland Trophy … I would say he earned it.”
That will get Mitchell back in that meeting room, watching more cut-ups for any clues that might help the Bulldogs deal with Oliver, as well as defensive ends Nick Thurman and Jerard Carter, who both have 4.5 tackles for loss.
“You kind of pick it apart, you pick game by game and see, ‘OK, if a certain guy did this to him, how did he fix it? How did he react to it in the middle of a game type of situation?’ ” Mitchell said. “You try to see how we can work to that and find not necessarily a weakness but something that he doesn’t fully succeed at. It’s putting together the right scheme to attack him and the defensive line like we’ve done all year.
“It’s definitely a big challenge for us on the interior and for our tackles against them on the outside. It’s going to take a whole group effort. I think we’re all looking forward to it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
- Sunday, Dec. 24: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
- Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
- TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
- Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power 5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.