For just about three full quarters, the questions started to stack up on the Fresno State Bulldogs.
What they needed in another low-possession, high-anxiety football game were answers, and they found them at just the right time in a 20-13 victory over BYU that as an added bonus came with bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2014.
With the score tied at 13 following a Cougars’ touchdown and 4:22 remaining in the third quarter, the Bulldogs put together a drive, not their best but just maybe their most important to this point in a turnaround season.
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They started at their own 12-yard line and went 88 yards in 14 plays, converting two third downs, one by feet and the other by inches.
Quarterback Marcus McMaryion hit all four of his passes on the drive, including a 35-yard strike to Da’Mari Scott, left wide open.
They rushed it 10 times for 27 tough yards, only one play going for more than 4 yards, that a 6-yard run by freshman running back Jordan Mims on a second-and-9, making a third-down play much more manageable.
Fresno State freshman Jordan Mims, describing the look he says he saw on his older Bulldogs teammates’ faces after the win
Mims got the last two yards, his second rushing touchdown of the game. From 1-11 to bowl eligible.
“It feels great,” Mims said. “Me being a freshman, I haven’t experienced this and it’s a great feeling to see the look on these older guy’s faces.”
What exactly is that look?
“Happiness,” Mims said.
Up 20-13, too much time left, the Bulldogs turned it over to their defense and it came up with three stops.
The second might have been the biggest, a fourth-and-1 from the Fresno State 26-yard line. The Cougars, averaging 5.4 yards per rush (sacks not included), tried to throw a pass. It was deflected by linebacker George Helmuth and fell incomplete.
Then after a booming 64-yard punt by Blake Cusick to the BYU 5, safety Mike Bell popped the ball loose from BYU tight end Matt Bushman on a first-down play and it was plucked out of the air by Jeffrey Allison.
“We needed a play and Coach put me in the right position to make that,” Bell said. “That’s all it is. It’s all part of Coach’s game plan. It comes down to making tackles and the ball just came my way this time.”
The Bulldogs got scores on their first two drives, a 43-yard field goal by Jimmy Camacho and a 2-yard run by Jordan Mims. They went 48 and 57 yards on those drives, but were stymied on their next two series in a low-possession first half that left them vulnerable.
Fresno State went three-and-out and then McMaryion missed KeeSean Johnson on a third-and-7 throw and the Bulldogs had to punt again.
They had 153 yards of offense in the first half, 50 on one throw, a strike from McMaryion to Jamire Jordan that set up the first touchdown run by Mims.
They averaged 4.5 yards on their other 23 plays, and with long fields on their final two drives of the half could not sustain offense.
The Cougars were only marginally better, but churned out 202 yards, the first time Fresno State had allowed 200 yards in a half since the second half of a Sept. 16 loss at No. 6 Washington. The Bulldogs held BYU to field goals of 27 and 46 yards, coming up with big plays to get off the field both times.
BYU drove to the Fresno State 9, but on a second-and-goal defensive tackle Jasad Haynes forced quarterback Tanner Mangum into a quick throw and on third-and-goal cornerback Jaron Bryant busted up a pass intended for tight end Matt Bushman.
On the final drive of the half, BYU got to the Bulldogs’ 24 and on a third-and-10 Allison got to quarterback Beau Hoge as he was scrambling to his right and away from pressure, taking him down for a sack and a loss of 5 yards.
BYU starting quarterback Tanner Mangum was sent to the sideline twice with injuries. The second time, an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter sent him to the locker room on a cart.
The tackle there was the 10th in the half for Allison. He finished with 14, matching a career-high set at No. 1 Alabama.
“Overall, we made some mistakes,” Allison said. “We had to buckle down. We had to fight. The coaches were talking to us to make sure we stayed in the game. We talked to each other to make sure we stayed in the game. We’ve been through so much, to finish it off was a great feeling. I’m proud of how we played.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT HAWAII
- Saturday: 8 p.m. PST at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
- Records: Bulldogs 6-3, 4-1 Mountain West; Rainbow Warriors 3-6, 1-5
- TV/radio: KSEE24/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Rainbow Warriors lost at UNLV on Saturday 31-23, the sixth time in seven games they have been held to 23 points or fewer. In the seventh game, they beat San Jose State 37-26. Hawaii went into that game ranked 10th in the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense, allowing 34.6 points per game, and has struggled mostly against the pass. Opponents had put up an efficiency rating of 172.32, last in the conference and 128th of 130 in the nation. UNLV passed for 281 yards, a season-high, in the victory over the Rainbow Warriors. And the Rebels are not exactly a strong passing team. In a loss to Utah State, they attempted 30 passes and completed only 13 for 85 yards. Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown completed 24 of 47 passes for 269 yards and one touchdown at UNLV, and ranks second in the conference in passing at 249.4 yards per game.