Fresno State beat Houston 33-27 in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, a back-and-forth game that turned dramatically on a late interception return for a touchdown by the Bulldogs.
Fresno State ended a six-game bowl losing streak. The Bulldogs hadn’t won a bowl since the 2007 Humanitarian.
And Fresno State became only the second team in Football Bowl Subdivision play to go from double-digit losses (1-11 in 2016) to double-digit wins (10-4 in 2017) in the space of one season.
“This is a special team to be a part of,” senior co-captain Aaron Mitchell said.
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Mitchell said he was thinking about the Bulldogs’ “island curse” in the Hawaii Bowl late in the fourth quarter.
Protecting a precarious six-point lead, the Bulldogs were backpedaling after two Houston first downs. But on a first-down play, Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King’s pass was deflected by Fresno State’s Robert Stanley (using his left hand on an athletic play) and Jaron Bryant intercepted near the sideline. Bryant navigated through some traffic for the 44-yard touchdown return with 3:49 left in the game to give Fresno State a 33-20 lead.
“I’m not even going to lie, a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Mitchell said of watching Bryant’s return.
Houston scored with 45 seconds left but Fresno State recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Bulldogs quarterback Marcus McMaryion was 33 of 48 passing for 342 yards and was named the Bulldogs’ player of the game. He didn’t have any touchdown passes but did score both Fresno State offensive touchdowns on short runs, including a 6-yard sneak for a 20-13 lead in the third quarter.
McMaryion, the Oregon State transfer who became starter in Week 4, set a career-high for passing yards and tied a Hawaii Bowl record for completions.
“I definitely came to just kind of help out and change the program, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought I’d be standing in this position right now, but I’m just glad that I was able to experience it with these guys,” said McMaryion, who joined the team in early August as a junior.
“I think I fell into a really good situation. When I got here the guys had the attitude and the work ethic and someone else said that I was just the cherry on top of it. The work ethic and everything was instilled that coach (Jeff) Tedford brought here, so it was just a great year overall and it’s great to finish with a ‘W,’ ” McMaryion said.
Tedford said, “It’s a great way to end the season here in Hawaii after a great week with win number 10, but it’s all about these kids.”
The game was tied four times, the last at 20-20 late in the third quarter after Houston’s Alexander Myres returned a blocked field goal attempt 94 yards for a Houston touchdown.
What happened next was critical, Mitchell said. “We definitely could’ve went into the hole and not had a chance. But football’s all about being able to rally your troops, get back on the field, and go put points on the board, and that’s what we did.”
Fresno State responded with a 10-play, 81-yard drive to get a go-ahead field goal by senior Jimmy Camacho. He added his fourth field goal of the game (a Hawaii Bowl record) later in the fourth quarter on a bizarre possession that might’ve left the Bulldogs wondering again if they were snakebit.
Fresno State freshman running back Ronnie Rivers dove for the right-front corner pylon of the end zone on a run but was ruled out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford ran onto the field – he said he was asking for a timeout, ostensibly so there would be time for officials to consider a video review of whether Rivers stepped out.
The officials called for the review, but Tedford was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for running on the field – a point of emphasis in college rules. The video official confirmed the call on the field, and Fresno State settled for the field goal and the six-point lead that suddenly became 13 with Bryant’s touchdown return.
Fresno State kept Houston All-American defensive lineman and Outland Trophy winner Ed Oliver mostly at bay. His biggest contribution was the first touchdown of the game, on a 1-yard run.
Fresno State finished with 480 yards of total offense to Houston’s 341. The Bulldogs entered allowing 116.6 rushing yards per game, the fifth-best mark in FBS. They held the Cougars to 72 rush yards – well below their per-game average of 175.5 – on 30 carries, an average of just 2.4 yards per attempt.
Fresno State will lose a total of five starters from this year’s squad. It opens 2018 at home Sept. 1 against Idaho.
Check back on Christmas Day for analysis and notes by Marek Warszawski, www.fresnobee.com/bulldogs
Associated Press contributed to this report
Hawaii Bowl summary
Fresno State 33, Houston 27
HOU—E.Oliver 1 run (Novikoff kick), 11:35
FRE—McMaryion 1 run (Camacho kick), 14:13
FRE—FG Camacho 27, 9:45
HOU—FG Novikoff 31, 7:17
FRE—FG Camacho 38, :00
HOU—FG Novikoff 31, 7:17
FRE—McMaryion 6 run (Camacho kick), 4:21
HOU—Myres 94 blocked field goal return (Novikoff kick), 2:54
FRE—FG Camacho 26, 13:56
FRE—FG Camacho 33, 6:00
FRE—Bryant 44 interception return (Camacho kick), 3:49
HOU—Bonner 2 pass from King (Novikoff kick), :45
NET YARDS RUSHING
Avg. per rush
NET YARDS PASSING
Avg. per attempt
Avg. per completion
TOTAL OFFENSE YARDS
Total offense plays
Avg. gain per play
Time of possession
RUSHING—Fresno St., Hokit 11-64, McMaryion 9-50, Mims 8-18, Rivers 6-7, Scott 1-2, O’Neal 1-(minus 3), (Team) 3-(minus 7). Houston, King 9-38, Car 7-16, Catalon 11-16, Leday 1-3, E.Oliver 1-1, Bonner 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—Fresno St., Hokit 0-1-0-0, McMaryion 33-48-1-342. Houston, King 23-43-1-269.
RECEIVING—Fresno St., K.Johnson 8-95, Ja.Rice 6-84, Jordan 6-80, Scott 4-23, Mims 3-24, Riddering 2-10, Rivers 2-8, Grim 1-9, Hokit 1-9. Houston, Dunbar 10-197, Bonner 7-39, Lark 4-30, Car 1-4, Catalon 1-(minus 1).
DEFENSE—Fresno St., Allison 13 total tackles-8 solo tackles, Bell 7-6, Helmuth 6-6, Okeke 5-3 (1 sack), Forrester 4-2, Bailey 3-2, Bryant 3-3 (1 interception), Coleman 3-2, Atkins 3-1, Haynes 3-3, Johnson 2-2, Hughes 2-2, Mosby 1-1, Stanley 1-1 (1 sack), Mafi 1-1, Iakopo 1-1, Kelly 0-0, totals 58 tackles-44 solo, 2 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 7 pass breakups, 1 quarterback hit. Houston, Adams 12-9 (1 sack), Myres 9-7, Williams 9-5, Egbule 8-4, Hines 6-2 (1 interception), Johnson 5-5, Godfrey 5-3, Oliver 4-3, K.Williams 4-3, Winchester 4-4, Carter 4-4, Thurman 3-2, J.Williams 1-1, Gooden 1-1, Davis 0-0, Vaughan 0-0, Turner 0-0, totals 75 tackles-53 solo, 1 sack, 6 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 5 pass breakups, 2 quarterback hits.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Fresno St., Camacho 56, Camacho 24 (block). Houston, Novikoff 45.
FRESNO STATE SCHEDULE
2 vs. Incarnate Word, W 66-0
9 at Alabama, L 41-10
16 at Washington, L 48-16
30 vs. Nevada*, W 41-21
7 at San Jose State*, W 27-10
14 vs. New Mexico*, W 38-0
21 at San Diego State*, W 27-3
28 vs. UNLV*, L 26-16
4 vs. BYU, W 20-13
11 at Hawaii*, W 31-21
18 at Wyoming*, W 13-7
25 vs. Boise State*, W 28-17
2 at Boise State**, L 17-14
24 Houston***, W 33-27
* Mountain West Conference game
** Mountain West championship game
*** Hawaii Bowl