Coming from 1-11 to be bowl-eligible is a big thing. For Fresno State, on Saturday against BYU, that transition was 88 yards away and it felt a bit like it was 88 miles.
BYU had momentum there, with 4:22 to go in the third quarter, having just tied the score with a touchdown. It had cut down the Bulldogs’ kickoff return at the 12-yard line. The Bulldogs’ offense, in this game and the last in a loss to UNLV, was not hitting at anywhere near peak efficiency.
Both were low-possession games with little margin for error, and Fresno State had made some.
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The Bulldogs had 292 yards against UNLV.
They had 189 taking the field for their sixth series against BYU.
But this time they overcame the alphabets, chewing up those 88 yards in 14 plays.
“We knew,” left tackle Christian Cronk said. “We trust in what the coaches are scheming against these guys. We just went out there and we trusted. As long as we know our assignments and play hard and physical and smart, we’re going to be OK. We weren’t coming off that field without scoring.”
The Bulldogs converted two third-down plays on that drive, gaining 3 yards on a third-and-2 and then 3 yards and one inch on a third-and-3.
Marcus McMaryion hit all four of his passes, the big one a 35-yard bolt to Da’Mari Scott, who was left wide open along the left sideline.
They ran it, just enough.
Fresno State had gained 84 yards on the three series that came before that drive, and it gained 28 yards on the three series that came after it.
But on that one drive, with a bowl invite there for the taking, they answered.
“I just said, ‘Hey, it’s 0-0,’” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It kind of had a feeling of we’re down 14. That kind of takes the air out of the stadium a little bit. I just said, ‘Hey, it’s 0-0, let’s go. Let’s do our thing.’ It was a great drive, and we needed it badly.”
Freshman Ronnie Rivers, who saw his most extensive action since suffering an elbow injury against New Mexico, gained 4 yards on first down. McMaryion hit KeeSean Johnson for 11 yards and Rivers for 7 yards. On second-and-3, Josh Hokit picked up 1 yard and on third-and-2 Scott gained 3 yards.
McMaryion then hit Scott with the 35-yard pass – the second of only two explosive plays of 20 or more yards Fresno State had in the game. Freshman back Jordan Mims rushed for 4 yards and McMaryion hit Johnson for 8 yards to the BYU 15.
The third quarter turned into the fourth, and the Bulldogs turned it over to an offensive line that has made huge strides this season from last.
Mims gained 1, 6, 3 and 4 yards to the Cougars’ 1-yard line. He was hit for a 1-yard loss, but on third-and-goal from the 2 he blasted right up the middle and into the end zone.
Right guard Micah St. Andrew and right tackle David Patterson drove their targets out of the play. Center Aaron Mitchell eliminated the Will linebacker, took him 3 yards into the end zone. Tight end Kyle Riddering, lined up to the right, wrestled 6-foot-9, 285-pound end Corbin Kaufusi and got a takedown.
“As an O-line, we got together and we knew what we had to do,” Cronk said. “We put a great drive together and came out on top.”
The Bulldogs were up, but not away from the Cougars.
BYU had three shots to tie the score, made it to the Bulldogs’ 26 on the second drive. But faced with a fourth-and-1, the Cougars curiously chose to attempt a pass.
They had run the ball for 5.4 yards a play (not counting two Fresno State sacks) and had their backup quarterback in the game. But that was the call. Beau Hoge took a snap, rolled right and had little to nothing there.
Defensive end Tobenna Okeke, fending off a block, drove Hoge toward the sideline. Linebacker George Helmuth went with him, as well, took on a blocker and when Hoge fired was able to get off the ground and deflect the football.
There was one more stop, fueled by a 64-yard punt by Blake Cusick that left BYU at its own 5-yard line with 95 yards to go to tie and 3:21 to get there.
Hoge hit a pass, found tight end Matt Bushman 20 yards down field. But safety Mike Bell drilled him, the ball popped into the air and Jeffrey Allison was there to pounce on it.
The Bulldogs were all smiles – a bowl game to play, and they’ll see about a spot in the Mountain West championship game over the next three weeks with games at Hawaii, at Wyoming and against Boise State on Senior Day.
Win two, and they’re there.
But to be bowling, that’s big, too.
“It sounds amazing,” Johnson said. “We haven’t been here in a while, so it’s a good feeling for me and the players who have been here the last two losing seasons. It feels good to be back here and to know we have another game.”
That was echoed, many times over.
“It feels amazing right now,” Bell said. “The guys in there were all loving it and all enjoying it, everyone is playing for each other right now. It’s just an amazing feeling in the locker room, it’s a great place to be right now.”
But Mims, who was at Menlo-Atherton High at this time last year when the Bulldogs were careening toward that 1-11 finish, summed it up best.
“It feels great,” he said. “Me being a freshman, I haven’t experienced this and it’s a great feeling to see the look on these older guys’ faces.”
What exactly is that look?
“Happiness,” Mims said.
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.