Fresno State inside linebackers Karl Mickelsen and Kyrie Wilson watched it together. Other Bulldogs were in front of TVs on Saturday as well, watching Boise State play San Diego State and rooting for the Broncos, of all things, a necessary evil on this night.
“Man, it was crazy,” Mickelsen said. “We were yelling at the TV and it’s kind of weird ... we were really rooting for Boise and it’s like, we hate Boise.”
Where that ranks on the weirdness scale is debatable. But it is no more bizarre than an end result — Boise State came back from 20 points down to beat the Aztecs — that made Fresno State one of two teams in the West Division of the Mountain West that controls its destiny in the conference race.
Three weeks into its football season Fresno State was reeling, coming off blowout losses at USC, at Utah and against Nebraska, giving up 50-plus points in all three games and losing by a combined 166 to 59.
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The Bulldogs got even, running off three wins in a row, then played poorly against a 1-5 team and lost in overtime at UNLV, which led into a loss at Boise State.
Then, supposedly refreshed after their first bye week of the season, they were crushed in a loss to Wyoming, giving up 694 yards and 45 points to a team averaging just 343.2 and 20.1.
But with two games remaining, though they are 4-6 and 3-3 in the Mountain West, the Bulldogs are right where they had hoped to be at this point.
“I don’t know that anybody would have predicted that,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “But the fact that we can still attain our goals, to me, should really energize our guys. ... Did anybody think that playing up in Reno was going to be a key game in our season? Well, it certainly played out that way. Not the way anybody anticipated it, but no matter what happened in the past to get here, it’s the game to get us where we want to go.”
After a weekend where Nevada lost at Air Force and San Diego State lost at Boise State, the Bulldogs, Wolf Pack and Aztecs are all 3-3 in conference play.
Fresno State and Nevada both have victories over San Diego State, so the winner of the game on Saturday night at Mackay Stadium in Reno will have the inside track to the division title.
That might not be the end of it, by any means. As DeRuyter said, “It has been crazy.”
The Bulldogs end the regular season on Nov. 29 against Hawaii. Nevada plays its final game at UNLV and San Diego State plays Air Force on Friday and closes with San Jose State.
The only team mathematically eliminated from contention at this point is UNLV, which is 1-5 in conference play. Hawaii and San Jose State both are 2-4.
“That’s going to be the message – guys, when we started this thing in the summer, our No. 1 goal was to win the league and here we are with two weeks left in the season and everything is in our control right now,” DeRuyter said. “Obviously, it all starts with the first one, so we have to have the best practice we had all year. That’s what we did before San Jose State, and if we can do that I like our chances.”
In that victory over the Spartans, the Bulldogs might finally have righted themselves. They led with the run, racking up 232 yards on the ground. Defensively, they flew around, forcing three turnovers. They played with a confidence that has been missing much of the season. That energy, now especially, is expected to carry over into a game that will likely determine whether they have a chance to capture a third consecutive Mountain West championship.
The question now is whether they can take advantage — Nevada is 2-2 at home this season against FBS competition and ranks fifth in the conference in total offense and ninth in total defense. But after that slow start and stumbles along the way, DeRuyter likes the direction the Bulldogs headed in that victory over San Jose State.
“In order to fly around, you have to have confidence in what you’re doing and in the guy next to you. Then you have success and it builds on itself. If you’re not confident in yourself and you’re not making plays, it’s hard to fly around, and that’s what we had in some of those other weeks,” DeRuyter said. “The key is executing our defense, having a good plan going in and I think we will, but it’s going out and executing and having fun doing it. That’s what we did against San Jose State. Guys flew around because they were confident and knew what to do.
“We had some senior leaders step up. I think (Mickelsen), he didn’t play great, but he played with a ton of energy and inspired guys around him by the way he was playing. He flew around, missed some tackles, but because he was flying around there were multiple guys there at the point of attack to clean things up and we need that kind of leadership out there on Saturday because we’re going to be on the road, there’s not going to be the home crowd to lean on for that energy. It’s going to be just us, and you have to be inspired by making that crowd go quiet. There’s a special feeling as a competitor when you’re on the road to hear a loud crowd go quiet.”