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September 12, 2008Rich Cornford remembers his star pupil as humble, almost shy, even though that player led the nation in rushing as a senior at Bakersfield (Calif.) West High.
Mathews had worn No. 21 through youth football and high school, but at Fresno State, that number was retired. Fullback Dale Messer had worn it when he led the Bulldogs to three California Collegiate Athletic Association titles from 1958-60. In fact, Mathews' friend, Bryson Sumlin, had been denied use of the number a few years earlier.
"I just liked it a lot," Mathews said. "I had it in high school and it did a lot of good things for me"
Fresno State coach Pat Hill arranged a meeting between Messer and Mathews at a practice despite Messer's previous reluctance to give up the jersey.
"I went to practice and Hill introduced me to Ryan. He seemed like a real nice guy," Messer said. "He walked up and gave me a hug. We got along. I said, 'I think I'm going to let you do it.'
"I'm glad I did."
Wisconsin will have its eyes on No. 21 Saturday night. Mathews, as usual, will have his eyes on the end zone.
Mathews is the top offensive player for a Bulldogs team hoping to win its first WAC title since 1999. In the process, they would like to follow fellow conference teams Boise State and Hawaii into a BCS game. In 12 career games, Mathews has 1,029 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Fresno State has won eight consecutive games when Mathews has scored.
That was the case in the season-opening win at Rutgers on Labor Day. In the final two quarters, Mathews rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns to lead Fresno State to a 24-7 upset.
"The first half I was shaking off the rust," Mathews said. "In the second half, I came out and felt better and more stable."
It was the kind of performance that made Hill thankful he and Fresno State stayed loyal to Mathews during the recruiting process.
Fresno State was among the first schools to offer Mathews a scholarship. More schools started calling as Mathews starred as a running back and linebacker as a junior. But a lot backed off as Mathews' grades started to slip and he failed a couple of classes.
"We were having success on the football field, and he got lazy in classroom," said Cornford, who coached Mathews at Bakersfield West and now coaches at Bakersfield Frontier. "He's a great kid, but sometimes he loses that focus. He was never a discipline problem. He took some time off in the classroom for about three weeks where he didn't do anything."
Cornford said Mathews kept to himself as he had trouble at home. During his junior year, Mathews and his brother moved into an apartment.
"It was a situation with my mom and her boyfriend. Me and him bumped heads, and my brother and him bumped heads," Mathews said. "It wasn't a good environment for my mom. She said 'You can live with me or I'll rent you guys an apartment.' "
Mathews' mother went to the apartment every day to cook dinner and eventually followed her son to Fresno, but there were times when he didn't know if he'd be eligible to play in college after his tumultuous junior year.
"I wasn't being responsible for myself," Mathews said. "I wasn't going to class. It hurt me a lot. I had to get myself straight."
Fresno State second-guessed itself on a bit regarding Mathews, but he assured the Bulldogs he would get his act together.
"We made a plan and we struck to the plan," Hill said. "He's going to get his degree. He's a heck of a young man. It's just sometimes they need a game plan to help them. We started working on that the summer before his senior year."
As Mathews was starring on the field as a senior, his work off the field in the classroom was sterling, too. As his grades went back up, other recruiters came back. But Mathews repaid Fresno State's faith in him with his loyalty.
On the field, Bakersfield West lost its starting quarterback to an injury in the third game. Cornford put the offense in Mathews' hands, moving him to quarterback and letting him run out of the shotgun, where he took direct snaps and handled the ball 30-40 times a game. Although the defense knew what was coming, Mathews rushed for 3,396 yards and 44 touchdowns. The experience served him well as a college tailback.
"It helped with vision, taking the snap and looking over defenses," Mathews said. "I could read linebackers and movements and the line."
Now, he uses that vision to find the end zone. He rushed for 866 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman. He started only twice last season, sharing time with Clifton Smith and Lonyae Miller for the nation's 14th-ranked rushing attack.
Mathews' intense offseason conditioning program might make it more difficult to keep the ball out of his hands this season.
"He always had speed, but he's increased his strength and hardened his body to take the pounding," Hill said. "He had 26 carries against Rutgers and came out of that game healthy and fresh."
If Mathews is fresh for the entire season, Fresno State could be a BCS-buster. If that happens, who knows, maybe Messer won't be the only No. 21 of note in Bulldogs history.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.