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FRESNO, CALIF. -- As if wrangling with running backs like Utah's Matt Asiata, BYU's Harvey Unga, and Nevada's full house backfield weren't enough, Utah State must now take on the nation's leading rusher.
All Fresno State's Ryan Matthews has done this year is pick up 167 yards per game, and average 7.25 yards per carry. USU Head Coach Gary Andersen said Matthews is the best runner his team has faced this year.
"He has an unbelievable mix of great speed and power, and the other thing he has is great vision," Andersen said. "We've played some guys that have been fast and some guys that have been physical, but he's fast, physical and he has great vision."
Tasked with stopping - or at least containing - Matthews is an Aggie rush defense that has been exploited (a kind way of saying they're ranked 109 out of 120 FBS teams against the run) at times and now enters Saturday's game minus three of its top defenders: safety James Brindley, cornerback Kejon Murphy, and linebacker Paul Igboeli.
Brindley is an instinctive defender who Aggie defensive coordinator Bill Busch calls the best at his position in the WAC. Murphy is Utah State's top cover corner, and Igboeli has been the vocal leader of the defense for the past three years.
Walter McClenton stepped up in place of Brindley and led the defense with 14 tackles against Louisiana Tech last week, as well as forcing a fumble. A strong showing by the Aggie defense against Fresno State's physical offense will require another strong showing from McClenton.
With Matthews' getting all the headlines, Fresno quarterback Ryan Colbourn is an afterthought coming into this game. He completes 58 percent of his passes, and that's with play-action to Matthews as his best friend, but with half of USU's starting secondary watching this game from the sideline, Colbourn will get a great chance to improve on his No. 90 ranking.
Like USU, Fresno State has played a brutal out-of-conference schedule this year. A loss at Wisconsin came in overtime, and No. 8 Cincinnati nipped the Bulldogs 28-20. Fresno was also strafed 51-34 by Boise State and the nation's leading passer Kellen Moore. But since getting into conference the Bulldogs have looked like top dogs. Most recently, the Bulldogs hammered New Mexico State, 34-3.
"They're playing extremely well," Andersen said. "Probably even more impressive is who they've lost to. They've lost to Cincinnati, Boise State and Wisconsin in overtime, so this is a very good football team. They're a powerful, strong team. We'll have to be on our ‘A' game against the leading rusher in the country. They're playing very well on both sides of the ball and their special teams has been good for years."
If USU is unable to hold the Bulldogs offense, currently ranked No. 9 in the country, in check, then the pressure will fall on USU's own No. 25 ranked offense to light up the scoreboard in Bulldog Stadium. Aggie quarterback Diondre Borel, however, is confident.
"They've got a good defensive front and their secondary is pretty fast," Borel said. "They're a fast defense overall, but it's nothing that we can't handle."
Borel has been intercepted only once this year, but leading the defense that will try to raise that figure is athletic defense end Chris Carter. The junior has four sacks, all of which have come on the road. Aggie tackles Spencer Johnson and Tariq Polley will look to continue that trend Saturday in the San Fernando Valley.
It's yet another road game for Andersen's road warriors, who play seven games away from Logan versus only five in Romney Stadium. Andersen credits his team's preparation for its solid - though winless - performances away from home this year.
"I think that the way we prepare helps us," Andersen said. "It doesn't matter if we're at home or on the road, we prepare exactly the same. I think that's been a positive for the kids."