When Derron Smith limped off the field late in the fourth quarter Saturday night on his bum left ankle, the all-conference free safety wasn't sure he would return.
Fresno State sure is grateful he did.
"Coming off the field I was just trying not to put too much pressure on it," Smith said after Tuesday's practice. "The doctors and trainers felt around. They felt what was painful and what wasn't."
Smith tried getting the ankle loose. He got on an exercise bike, but even that hurt. Then he and strength coach Joey Boese went behind the bench to see if Smith could run or backpedal. He did not receive any painkillers.
"Once I realized it was just pain and not a severe injury," Smith said, "that's when I told myself I could push through this. 'My team needs me. I'll get out there, try to make a play and get the 'W.' "
Smith made that play, breaking up the final pass in the end zone on fourth down, and Fresno State escaped 35-28 in overtime over San Diego State to keep its record unblemished.
In a season of close shaves, Saturday was the straight razor. The Bulldogs might rank seventh in the nation in scoring and total offense, but it has been the defense that has provided the deciding play in four of their seven wins.
In the opener against Rutgers, strong safety Charles Washington provided blanket coverage on the 2-point conversion try in overtime. Against Boise State, nickel corner Jonathan Norton knocked away a fourth-down pass. Against Hawaii, corner L.J. Jones made the Hail Mary interception.
And now, Smith. Who minutes earlier was so banged up that coach Tim DeRuyter figured he was done for the night.
"Things were looking pretty dire," DeRuyter said. "We'd already lost L.J. (to a knee sprain). Now we lose Derron, and I'm starting to look down the roster at who else we had."
Smith was not on the field for the blocked field goal at the end of regulation. He's typically the designated jumper, though 6-foot-6 Marcel Jensen filled in admirably.
But when the Bulldogs won the toss and scored a touchdown on their first overtime possession, No. 13 willed himself back out there.
"Trying to plant and push off, I was definitely hurting," Smith said. "It's mind over matter. It wasn't to where I couldn't run. It was just a painful run.
"But I had to go out there and put it on the line for my team, because I knew every guy on that sideline would do the same for me."
The Aztecs gained 5 yards on their first three plays, setting up fourth-and-5. Breaking the huddle, Smith found himself assigned to receiver Dylan Denso, who had zero catches.
Perhaps knowing Smith was hobbling, quarterback Quinn Kaehler delivered the ball to Denso on a deep corner route.
"That's probably the hardest route to cover in that specific coverage that we had," Smith said. "So it was a long run. Luckily my D-line got in there and got a little pressure at the last second."
That pressure was huge, because it made Kaehler underthrow the ball. But Smith didn't see any of that. He was just reading Denso's body language.
"When you're chasing your guy you can't always look back for the ball," Smith said. "That's how you lose a step. So I had to keep my eyes on my man.
"But when the ball's in the air the receiver is going to let you know it's on the way. Either his eyes are gonna get big or he's gonna speed up or like this time when he turned back to it."
Smith turned at the perfect time and knocked away the ball for his fourth pass breakup of the season to go with three interceptions.
Then it was time for the celebration. Well, kind of.
"I wanted to celebrate, but I couldn't celebrate too much," Smith said. "If you watch the replay, you see my jumping up and landing on my right leg."
Smith has been getting treatment on the ankle all week and fully expects to be ready for Saturday's game against Nevada.
And Fresno State needs him, perhaps as much as it needs any player on the roster. With two first-year starters (Curtis Riley and Washington) and with Jones expected to miss time, Smith is the one constant in the secondary.
"It's beat up, and it's young," DeRuyter said. "That's not a good combination, unfortunately. But having Derron back there helps a lot. The guy works his tail off and is a very smart football player."
Smith proved his football smarts earlier in the game on Ejiro Ederaine's 78-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
During the mass confusion, Smith was the guy who noticed the referee hadn't blown the whistle and implored Ederaine to keep running toward the end zone.
Smarts and guts. For Smith and the Bulldogs, it's a winning combination.
NO. 16 FRESNO STATE VS. NEVADA
Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
Records: Bulldogs 7-0, 4-0 Mountain West; Wolf Pack 3-5, 2-3
Radio: KFIG (AM 940); KGST (AM 1600)
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.