Fresno State vs. Rice
5 p.m. PST at Aloha Stadium in Honlulu
Bulldogs 6-7, Owls 7-5
ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
75 degrees, showers
Keys to the game
•For Fresno State:
Neutralize the defensive ends. The Bulldogs have a chance to make some plays over the top against a Rice defense that allowed 47 pass plays of 20 or more yards, tied for 11th in the 13-team Conference USA. But they are going to have to keep Zach Patt and Brian Nordstrom from harassing quarterback Brian Burrell. Patt has 8.5 sacks and Nordstrom 7.5. A clean pocket obviously helps Burrell, who has completed only 58.7% of his passes.
Extend drives. Fresno State has been much better defensively in its past four games but took a serious hit when two freshman reserve inside linebackers were suspended for the bowl. Part of the improvement stemmed from keeping starters Karl Mickelsen and Kyrie Wilson fresher. Against Rice, Mickelsen and Wilson figure to see more reps and if the Owls can continue to convert third downs at a good clip (47%), that could exacerbate potential depth issues for the Bulldogs.
— Robert Kuwada, The Fresno Bee
•Filling the void:
With starting end Maurice Poyadue among the Fresno State players suspended for the Hawaii Bowl, defensive line coach Pete Germano has been left assessing who will fill in the starting role.
Junior Claudell Louis and redshirt freshman Nate Madsen are in the running to start alongside nose guard Tyeler Davison and opposite Todd Hunt at the other end position against Rice today.
Rice coach David Bailiff figures whoever gets the start will continue the trend of improvment shown by position group through the season: “That’s where I’ve been really impressed with Fresno State’s growth — along the defensive line. They’ve really gotten better as the year’s gone on and become a force.”
Can the line maintain pressure without Poyadue, a junior who has played in 33 career games? Poyadue made eight starts this season, including seven in a row leading into the bowl, and finished with 23 tackles.
The 6-foot-4, 292-pound Louis has played in all 13 games this season, albeit sparingly, while making nine tackles. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Madsen also had played in 13 games and started four while making 11 tackles.
Poyadue, true freshmen linebackers Michael Lazarus and Xavier Ulutu, and reserve sophomore inside receiver Myles Carr were suspended for the bowl last week for violating an athletic department policy.
The Bulldogs are playing on the island of Oahu for a fourth straight year. Plus, Fresno State will make a fifth consecutive trip to the island next year to play the Hawaii Warriors during the Mountain West regular season.
Fresno State has an all-time record of 11-16 in games in Hawaii: The Bulldogs are 11-14 when playing the Warriors here and 0-2 in postseason games (a 41-30 loss to Colorado in the 1993 Aloha Bowl and a 43-10 loss to Southern Methodist in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl).
The Bulldogs are hoping that previous visits to Hawaii have helped players focus on football and limit the many island distractions.
Fresno State has 19 players who played in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl, including five starters in offensive linemen Alex Fifita and Cody Wichmann, nose guard Tyeler Davison, outside linebacker Donavon Lewis and safety Derron Smith. There are 59 players on the roster this time who were not part of the 2012 squad.
“We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We know the hospitality of the Hawaii people; they do a terrific job with the bowl. We also know that as great as the last trip was, the last three hours were pretty miserable for us. Our players are determined to change that.
“We have a new group that’s with us this time. Certainly hope with the preparation and guys being here before that (though) there’s a lot of beautiful distractions here, we’ve got to remain focused on that one goal, which is to win a football game.”
•Linked to the Valley:
Though Rice does not have one player from California, the Owls coaching staff has a tie to the central San Joaquin Valley.
Rice tight ends coach David Sloan starred at Sierra High then Fresno City from 1990-91 before developing into a three-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end. The 6-foot-7 Sloan actually started off playing basketball for the Rams then spent one season on Fresno City’s football team before earning a scholarship to New Mexico. Selected in the third round by the Detroit Lions in the 1995 draft, Sloan played nine years in the NFL then got into coaching.
Sloan, 41, is in his fifth season at Rice and third as an assistant. He has coached two NFL draft picks and a third player who signed as an NFL free agent in 2012.
— Bryant-Jon Anteola, The Fresno Bee