Coach: Pat Hill (9th season, 64–38) 2004 record: 9-3 (Beat Virginia in MPC Computers Bowl) WAC finish: 5-3 (t-3rd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 15th (227.5 ypg) Passing: 95th (177.0 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 70th (164.5 ypg) Passing: 13th (174.8 ypg)
at New Mexico State
San Jose State
Depth Chart: Offense
9 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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For all the success Fresno State has enjoyed under ninth-year coach Pat Hill, true glory has proved elusive. Twice since 2001, the Bulldogs put themselves on the national radar with early victories over BCS opponents, only to stumble and watch Boise State take the WAC title.
But this could be the year for Fresno State, as the Bulldogs return a solid nucleus of veteran players at key positions.
"I feel very good about this team," Hill said. "We have some excellent senior leadership and a lot of starters returning who have won some big-time football games."
To his credit, fourth-year starting quarterback Paul Pinegar recovered nicely from a midseason slump then looked better than ever during spring practice after Hill declared the Bulldogs "Paul's team." Pinegar doesn't own a cannon arm, but he's a cool customer who makes good decisions. Barring injury, promising backup Tom Brandstater will have to wait.
At tailback, the two-headed monster of Bryson Sumlin and Wendell Mathis returns after combining for 2,097 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Both are capable of big plays, though Sumlin also excels in short yardage. If that weren't enough, converted cornerback Clifton Smith forced his way into the rotation with an electrifying spring.
Lackluster in '04, the receiving corps received a much-needed boost from Paul Williams, who had more receiving yards during the spring game (109) than he did all of last season (70). If Williams can provide an occasional big play, veterans Joe Fernandez, Jermaine Jamison and Adam Jennings are fine possession types.
With Dartangon Shack moving back to left tackle, a position he played in '03, the offensive line should be again be a strength. Center Kyle Young dominates inside. At guard, WAC Freshman of the Year Ryan Wendell returns alongside a healthy Cole Popovich.
The Bulldogs have holes to fill on the defensive line, where All-WAC performer Garrett McIntyre is the only returning starter. After notching six sacks last season at tackle, McIntyre moves back to end. Why? Because coaches expect big things from big tackles Louis Leonard and Jason Shirley.
The linebacker corps is solid, if not star-studded, with leading tackler Dwayne Andrews patrolling the middle, Marcus Riley dropping into coverage and Manuel Sanchez making plays behind the line. Coaches also expect more production from Alan Goodwin, who broke into the starting lineup in the second half of the season.
James Sanders' decision to forgo his senior season created a vacancy at strong safety, but the Bulldogs should still be strong in the secondary. In Richard Marshall and Marcus McCauley, they have the best cornerback tandem in the WAC, if not the West. Both have the size, speed and technique to stay with any receiver.
Fresno State breaks in a new kicker in Clint Stitser. The sophomore turned heads in the spring game by booting a 53-yard field goal with room to spare. Punter Mike Lingua excels at limiting returns with good hang time but struggles when asked to boom one downfield.
Will this be the year Fresno State holds it together, finally upends Boise State and makes a Utah-like run to the postseason? Don't dismiss the notion.
The returning talent is considerable, led by Pinegar, a devastating backfield and several proven playmakers on defense. Also, the schedule stacks up more favorably. Instead of peaking early, things build to a crescendo with back-to-back November games against Boise State and two-time defending national champion USC.
With all the returning talent, anything short of nine wins would be considered a disappointment.