Fresno State triggered early hopes of a late-season resurgence under an interim coach only to instead rekindle bad memories in a skid that will produce a third straight losing season, blowing an early two-touchdown advantage and another lead in the third quarter in losing to Air Force 31-21 on Friday night in the first game of the post-Tim DeRuyter era.
It was the seventh straight defeat for the Bulldogs, who fell to 1-8 overall and 0-5 in the Mountain West Conference.
“I know (Air Force) rushed for a ton of yards, but if you guys saw the effort and the look in their eyes on the sideline and in the huddle, we were talking about tremendous effort all week long, the kids were shouting back to us,” interim coach Eric Kiesau said. “There’s a big buy-in factor right now. I know the points are not there, the score is not there, but that will come. I believe that. These kids still believe it. They'll come back to work hard on Sunday and get back to practice.”
DeRuyter was fired Sunday, with Kiesau, the offensive coordinator, taking over through the end of the season. The Bulldogs already were guaranteed another sub.500 campaign, this after a 3-9 season in 2015 that included a 42-14 loss to the Falcons – a game in which Fresno State led 14-0.
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There seemed little reason to fear a repeat Friday, even as the Bulldogs again went up two scores with redshirt freshman quarterback Chason Virgil looking sharp. He connected on three 20-yard-plus passes in the first quarter, a surprising development for an offense that had a season high of just four. One went 36 yards to KeeSean Johnson for a first-quarter touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Virgil and Johnson connected twice more for TDs, a 2-yarder early in the second quarter helped along by a pair of end-zone pass-interference calls against the Falcons, and another for a 52 yards with 6:25 remaining in the third after Air Force – aided by a series of Virgil interceptions – had reeled off 17 straight points to take its first lead.
Air Force (5-3, 2-3) broke through again, even after it was forced to turn to a backup quarterback. Sophomore Arion Worthman ran for 12 yards on fourth-and-1 at the Bulldogs 27, then had three of the next four carries as well including a 2-yard burst into the end zone with 13:02 remaining in the game.
The Bulldogs responded, with an Air Force interference penalty and unsportsmanlike conduct call moving the ball near midfield where Virgil hit Jamire Jordan for a 29-yard gain to the Falcons 28.
But facing third-and-16, Virgil saw a pass sail off the hands of Aaron Peck and into those of a diving Weston Steelhammer at the 14 for the quarterback’s fourth interception.
“We didn’t make enough plays on offense,” Kiesau said. “We made a few critical errors.”
The Falcons bled the clock, taking 7:16 to go 82 yards. Though they surrendered the ball on downs when stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Falcons left Fresno State just 3:25 to attempt a final comeback.
Virgil threw incomplete on fourth-and-7 from the Fresno State 7 with 2:49 remaining, and Air Force tacked on a cosmetic score, a 4-yard Worthman run, in snapping its own three-game losing streak.
“You’re never stuck,” Kiesau said of staying with Virgil, rather than calling on backup Zach Kline, the senior graduate transfer from Cal. “As a grown man you have to make decisions based on the football team. I just thought that he came back and made a big play for a touchdown.
“Again, I know it’s going to be a huge conversation piece, that’s part of being a head coach and the decisions you make. I still think it was the right decision. But, again, moving forward, we have to watch this tape really close, clean it up and make the best decisions for the football team as we move forward.”
Worthman, meanwhile, who came on in the third quarter in relief of injured starter Nate Romine, rushed for 102 yards on 20 carries. The Falcons’ prolific option-based ground game totaled 327 yards in all, 227 of that in the second half.
“In my entire career, whenever the backup comes in, it’s never good because he just lets it rip,” Kiesau said. “He just has fun. You come off the bench and you have nothing to lose. The kid did a great job. He executed their offense really well.”
Air Force had a 424-349 edge in total yards. Virgil finished 18 for 37 for 303 yards.
“Two of the interceptions weren’t his fault and two of the interceptions were his fault,” Kiesau said. “We have to go back to the film and study it. I know the easy route would have been to pull him. After he made his second interception I looked him in the eye and told him that I believed in him and that goes a long way with young men these days. He had a third down after where he made a huge play to score a touchdown.”
Virgil also received almost no support from the running game. Dontel James rushed for 24 yards on 19 carries and the Bulldogs had just 37 yards on the ground as a team.
“I thought Fresno State was absolutely superb.” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “The circumstances under which they had to work this week, for their coaches to have the kids that well prepared, it was a real tip of the cap to the quality young men they have and their coaching staff, too. They did a sensational job, I mean it, a super super job.”
Somewhat lost in the final result was Johnson’s big night. He became the first Bulldog with three touchdowns in a game since future NFL draft pick Devante Adams in November 2013 against San Jose State, a game the Bulldogs lost 62-52.
Johnson, who counts Adams as a family friend who “got me here,” finished with 10 catches for 142 yards.
“It definitely feels good, but it would have felt better with a win,” Johnson said. “That’s the main thing for me. I just wanted to come out and help my team as much as I can to win. Each week that’s the main thing.”
Both he and senior free safety Stratton Brown said there was a different energy in practice and at the game, though coaches mostly worked during the week to ensure that players were still buying fully into the program.
“It is still the same season,” Brown said. “I feel like our team bought in with Coach Kiesau’s philosophy and we are just fighting for a ‘W.’ We can only go forward from here.”
Added Johnson: “It was a lot of energy (on the sideline with Kiesau). He’s a younger coach, so he comes out and has a lot of energy.”
▪ Peck went through pregame workouts and was available to play after missing last week’s game with the ankle injury.
▪ The Bulldogs made it official on tight end Chad Olsen, announcing the junior had voluntarily left the program. Fresno State confirmed earlier this week that Olsen was not with the team while dealing with personal issues. A product of Pleasant Valley in Chico, he finishes with 38 career catches for 463 yards and seven touchdowns. Olsen played in five games with four starts this season.
▪ Fresno State cornerback Tank Kelly was serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
Air Force 31, Fresno State 21
FRE — K.Johnson 36 pass from Virgil (Kroening kick), 7:55
FRE — K.Johnson 2 pass from Virgil (Kroening kick), 12:19
AF — R.Cleveland 33 pass from Romine (Strebel kick), :41
AF — FG Strebel 27, 9:01
AF — Healy 35 interception return (Strebel kick), 8:24
FRE — K.Johnson 52 pass from Virgil (Kroening kick), 6:25
AF — Worthman 2 run (Strebel kick), 13:02
AF — Worthman 4 run (Strebel kick), 2:34
Time of Possession
RUSHING — Air Force, Worthman 20-102, Owens 17-71, Davern 15-70, Romine 9-26, R.Cleveland 1-20, T.Williams 1-17, McVey 5-16, P.Wilson 3-7, (Team) 2-(minus 2). Fresno State, James 19-24, Jordan 3-21, T.Green 3-3, Ju.Rice 1-1, Virgil 4-(minus 12).
PASSING — Air Force, Romine 5-9-0-97. Fresno State, T.Green 1-1-0-9, Virgil 18-37-4-303.
RECEIVING — Air Force, Robinette 3-54, R.Cleveland 1-33, McVey 1-10. Fresno State, K.Johnson 10-142, Jordan 4-115, Hardaway 3-30, Peck 1-16, Virgil 1-9.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — Air Force, Strebel 27.
By the numbers
6: Explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards by the Bulldogs, a season high.
4: Interceptions thrown by Fresno State’s Chason Virgil, a career high.
2: Consecutive completions to start the game by Air Force’s Nate Romine; he was 1 of 10 last week.
5: Games with less than 100 rushing yards for Fresno State, most since 2013. It had 37 Friday night.
7: Games in a row Fresno State has allowed more than 200 rushing yards; Falcons had 327.
15: Tackles by Bulldogs safety Stratton Brown, third game in a row with 10 or more.
4: Fresno State players with 10 or more tackles – Brown, Robert Stanley (11), Jeff Camilli (11), Trent Soechting (10).
125: Career-high receiving yards for Fresno State’s KeeSean Johnson, on eight receptions.
6: 100-yard receiving games by Bulldogs’ receivers this season, most since 2013.
38: Total yards for the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter.
312: passing yards for Fresno State, first time over 300 in 22 games.
FRESNO STATE AT COLORADO STATE
- Saturday, Nov. 5: 12:30 p.m. at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadiumin in Fort Collins
- Records: Bulldogs 1-8, 0-5, Mountain West; Rams 4-4, 2-2
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)