For three-plus quarters in the Mountain West Conference championship game, Fresno State had the plays. A big sack, a tackle for loss. Four times the Bulldogs forced Boise State to punt when on their side of the field, caught a break when the Broncos missed on a 46-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Fresno State had built a lead on two red zone touchdown runs by quarterback Marcus McMaryion and were nursing it, just 7:45 away from a title-game victory to cap a stunning and improbable turnaround from a 1-11 season.
But then it got away on, of all things, an explosive pass play. The Bulldogs, who had answers throughout a nine-win regular season, had none at the end Saturday in a 17-14 loss to the Broncos before 24,515 at Albertsons Stadium.
This group has accomplished quite a bit and I think it rejuvenated the town of Fresno and there’s a lot to be proud of.
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“We didn’t get what we came here to accomplish, but you have to give them a lot of credit,” said coach Jeff Tedford, coach of the year in the conference. “Our guys battled hard and just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”
With the way the game was going, that was about as surprising as the Bulldogs’ presence in the championship game; they were picked to finish last in the West Division in a preseason poll, with a predicted season win total of four.
Fresno State (9-4, 7-1 in the MW) had Boise State in a bad spot, down 14-10 and starting a fourth-quarter drive at its own 10-yard line.
A penalty on first down set the Broncos back to the 5, but then quarterback Brett Rypien found wideout Cedrick Wilson behind the Bulldogs’ secondary.
Rypien threw a perfect pass. Lucky for Fresno State, cornerback Jaron Bryant got just enough of Wilson to trip up the receiver.
Fresno State had allowed only 25 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards, fewest in the Mountain West and tied with three teams for third-fewest in the nation.
This time, Tedford said, Wilson basically ran through the Bulldogs’ coverage for a 59-yard gain to the Bulldogs’ 36.
Even then, Fresno State was not done. It had a chance, just as it did when stopping Boise State drives at its 41, 39, 29, 47 and 48 without surrendering any points. It was in position to keep the lead if it could hold the Broncos to a field goal.
But Boise State converted a third-and-5, Rypien hitting Wilson for 7 yards to the Bulldogs’ 24. The Broncos got a pass interference penalty on Tank Kelly in coverage against Wilson on a second-and-10 that put the ball at the Fresno State 2.
And the Broncos took a 17-14 lead with 4:42 to go on a 2-yard run by Ryan Wolpin.
There was no answer from Fresno State.
The Bulldogs, who likely are headed to the Hawaii Bowl and a matchup against a 7-4 Houston from the American Athletic Conference, ended the game with the fifth of five second-half punts and then an interception by linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the defensive player of the year in the conference.
“It’s definitely one that stings, but we have one more game to play this year and I think we’re going to get back and learn from the tape and get better from it,” McMaryion said.
In the second half, Fresno State generated just 85 yards of offense. The Bulldogs were stymied by poor field position, starting drives at their 13 and their 10. But they could rush for only 15 yards on 10 plays, McMaryion hit only 7 of 18 passes for 70 yards and they converted only 1 of 7 third-down plays.
“The third quarter, we really had some bad field position,” Tedford said. “We were backed up down there quite a bit. We flipped it in the fourth quarter in hopes that we could do something, but just didn’t capitalize on enough third-down stuff, had a key penalty there that kind if put us back.”
The Bulldogs had come a long way, but came up short playing in their third Mountain West championship game; they beat Utah State in 2013, lost at Boise State in ’14.
“I’m really proud of our team and our staff,” Tedford said. “To be in this position, like I said we fell short tonight, but this group has accomplished quite a bit and I think it rejuvenated the town of Fresno and there’s a lot to be proud of.
“These guys worked really hard to get to this point and like I told them in the locker room, they shouldn’t hold their heads down because they accomplished a lot this year when no one really believed coming off of last season. I think it was the worst record in college football last year, the only team that won one game. For them to turn around and be in the conference championship game says a lot about these kids. I’m really proud of them, Even though we fell short, I’m really proud of them. I love them and we’ll go back to the drawing board, we’ll be back.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
The final possession
The Fresno State defense gave the offense one last shot when Mike Bell tackled Robert Mahone for a loss of 3 yards on a third-and-6. Ronnie Rivers called a fair catch on the 34-yard punt to the Bulldogs 14.
Time left: 2:23
Timeouts left: none
First down: Jabril Frazier forced an incomplete pass, getting to Marcus McMaryion just as he was releasing the ball
Second down: McMaryion’s pass complete to Da’Mari Scott for 3 yards
Third down: Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch stepped in front of a pass over the middle for an interception