Illini welcome “smash-mouth” Bulldogs in season finale

Illinois may not have faced Wisconsin or Iowa this season, but coming to town this Saturday is a Fresno State team that Illinois head coach Ron Zook compared favorably to the hard-nosed style of the Badgers and Hawkeyes.

“We’re sitting in there talking about who you would compare them to in teams that we’ve played, and we didn’t play Wisconsin this year, but a team like Wisconsin.” Zook said. “They’re going to come in there, and they’re going to ram the ball down your throat. A team like Iowa last year. They’re physical and tough.”

Fresno State (7-4) will be playing for bowl position while Illinois (3-8) will be looking to send its seniors out with a win in both teams’ regular-season finale.

The Bulldogs boast the nation’s leading rusher in junior running back Ryan Mathews, who averages 149.1 yards per contest.

Mathews is expected to play Saturday after sitting out last week’s game against Louisiana Tech due to a concussion he suffered at Nevada on Nov. 14.

“He’ll be ready to roll this week,” Fresno head coach Pat Hill said. “He’s practiced well and it’s a big game for him.”

The Illinois defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten against the run, surrendering 147.3 rushing yards per game, but has held its past three opponents to a combined 210 yards on the ground.

“I think we’re built for that smash-mouth football,” senior defensive end Doug Pilcher said.

“We got some big defensive tackles in Josh Brent, Corey (Liuget), and Sirod (Williams) in there. We know they’re going to stuff up those holes and we’re going to do our part, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

Fresno State runs a pro-style offense like Wisconsin and Iowa, as opposed to the spread offenses of Northwestern and Cincinnati, Illinois’ two most recent opponents.

“It’s more fun when you get to get more hitting in,” junior linebacker Aaron Gress said. “It’s definitely a lot more fun than that spread stuff.”

The strong running game led by Mathews has opened up the passing game for the Bulldogs, with junior quarterback Ryan Colburn compiling 2,150 passing yards and 16 touchdowns on the season.

“Their quarterback is kind of an unsung hero, an unbelievable player,” Zook said. “I think the way he manages the game and handles the game is exceptional.”

Another offensive threat in Fresno State’s arsenal is senior cornerback A.J. Jefferson, who is the nation’s active leader in career kick return average with 32.3 yards per return.

He led the nation with 35.8 yards per return in 2007.

“The only reason that their kickoff returner is not leading the nation this year is because no one will kick to him,” Zook said.

The Bulldogs also boast the Western Athletic Conference’s second-best scoring defense, allowing 25.6 points per game.

“Defensively, they’ll just try and maul you,” Zook said.

They’re an over and under team, a lot of cover. Not a big blitz team, they’re just going to play hard and chase the football and they’re going to try to create turnovers.

“They’re not going to give up many big plays,” Zook added.

“They’re going to keep the ball in front of them and try to knock you out. That’s how they play. They’re a tough, physical group of guys.”