By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Fresno State had the NCAA rushing leader last season in Ryan Mathews, a darkhorse Heisman hopeful who was taken by San Diego with the 12th pick in the NFL Draft.
However, if the Ole Miss run defense returns to form – and there were signs of improvement in a’ 28-14 loss to Vanderbilt – it could be Fresno’s senior quarterback that shovels coal in the engine Saturday night when the WAC Bulldogs take on the Rebels.
Left-hander Ryan Colburn is second in the WAC and 11th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 167.58 rating. He’s completed 70 percent of his attempts this season.
“Their quarterback is a veteran who can handle just about anything, and he’s got some good backs and receivers,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said.
Ole Miss (1-2, 0-1 SEC) is looking for its first home win of the season against Fresno State (2-0), which has gotten off to a fast stat with victories against Cincinnati and Utah State.
The biggest question facing the Bulldogs heading into the season was who would replace Mathews, and the answer is still developing.
Although Fresno won 28-14, it was held to fewer than 50 rushing yards against Cincinnati. That changed against Utah State, a four-win team in 2009. Against Cincinnati, the Bulldogs had just 49 yards as a team, and starting tailback Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) got 20 carries but only 40 yards.
After a bye week, Fresno gained 230 yards on the ground against Utah State with A.J. Ellis (5-10, 195) leading the way with 165 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. He had a long run of 39 yards, and big plays allowed in the run game were costly for Ole Miss last week. Vanderbilt’s three offensive touchdowns came on runs of 15, 35 and 80 yards.
“We got our run game into gear, and we were able to control the game in the second half,” Hill said.
Rouse was held out of the Utah State game with an injured shoulder, and his status for Ole Miss is unclear.
“Ryan was a tremendous talent and a great teammate, but with us it’s always been about who’s next,” Colburn said. “We’ve got a lot of talented young players, and we make adjustments and move on.”
Those adjustments have helped the Bulldogs produce a thousand-yard rusher in 12 of the last 15 seasons.
But Fresno State has produced quarterbacks too. Hill has three quarterbacks in the NFL right now, and since 1990 Fresno is the only school to have two quarterbacks go in the top 10 picks.
While the run game is a personality, Colburn is clearly the leader on offense.
“I take pride in the fact that I’m a good leader. I feel I’m a great leader, actually,” he said. “My work ethic is up there, and my preparation time is definitely up there. The big difference this year is my confidence level is at such a different place. I’m trusting my ability. What I see, because of my preparation, allows me go to out and play with much more confidence.”
Colburn estimates he spends an additional 10 hours breaking down game video, time beyond what is mandated by the practice schedule and team meetings.
Colburn tied a career-high with four touchdown passes against Cincinnati. In the last 11 games, he’s thrown 17 touchdowns, six interceptions and faces an Ole Miss secondary that hasn’t picked off a pass this season.
“A couple of big plays have hurt (Ole Miss). They have a lot of good personnel, and they fly around and make plays,” Colburn said. “I wouldn’t say we’re ‘catching them’ at a good time. We don’t think that we’re not going to get their best shot.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.