Fresno State didn't win a championship Saturday.
But what Fresno State did gain were a couple of big-game playmakers who didn't seem to be quite there the whole season.
Quarterback Brian Burrell stepped up with a career-high five touchdowns to make up for star running back Marteze Waller's absence, and the Bulldogs defense forced a season-high four turnovers and didn't allow a point in the second half as Fresno State defeated Nevada 40-20 in a high-stakes game on a chilly Saturday night at Mackay Stadium.
Nevada (6-5, 3-4) was eliminated from the race for the West Division title of the Mountain West.
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Fresno State (5-6, 4-3), meanwhile, can capture the divisional crown and advance to the conference championship with a win against Hawaii (4-8, 3-4) in the regular-season finale Saturday at Bulldog Stadium.
"It feels great," Burrell said. "This was a win or go home. So it was a really important game. It feels good to play a good game today."
Fresno State can even lose to Hawaii and still win the division, though that would require San Diego State to lose to San Jose State and Nevada to beat UNLV. In that scenario, Fresno State, San Diego State, Nevada and Hawaii would all finish tied for first in the West Division. But the Bulldogs would win out on tiebreakers.
Like the Bulldogs' run toward a potential third straight conference championship in a season that began with three straight losses, Saturday night didn't go the way they envisioned initially. But Fresno State once again figured out how to get it done.
The Bulldogs gained a boost when Waller returned to the starting lineup after missing the majority of the past game. But that quickly ended after Waller took a shot to the head with 7:46 left in the first quarter. He never returned, and the Bulldogs had to alter their game plan some.
Fresno State intensified its aerial attack and first-year starter Burrell responded by passing for 313 yards and a career-high four touchdowns as well as rushing for another score to outduel Nevada four-year starting quarterback Cody Fajardo.
"I'm proud of the way Brian Burrell keeps competing, his guts," Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. "We've got a bunch of kids who believe, and it's fun to coach them.
"Really proud of our players and assistant coaches not just for tonight but for the last month. When people have thrown dirt of them, thought it was over, our coaches never gave up. And our players obviously never gave up either. ... Our guys rose to the occasion, and I'm just really really proud of the entire effort."
Fajardo did break loose for touchdown runs of 55 and 60 yards during the first 16 minutes of the game. But he was fairly silent the rest of the way as Fresno State pressured him from all sides with timely blitzes and forced the Wolf Pack into key third-and-longs by taking away the dive run up the middle on earlier downs. Nevada converted just 4 of 14 third downs.
Fajardo ran for 165 yards. But he completed a mere 11 of 24 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown. He also was intercepted once, lost a fumble and got sacked three times. Fajardo appeared to play dinged up from the middle of the second quarter and on after Bulldogs cornerback Charles Washington hit the Nevada quarterback hard just before he ran out of bounds.
In all, Fresno State forced Nevada into a season-high four turnovers after the Wolf Pack entered the game with just 10 all season. The Bulldogs rang up 24 points off turnovers.
"We stunk," Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. "We stunk in all three phases -- a fourth if you count the coaches, and it starts with us. We got our butts beat."
Fajarado's interception with roughly 2 minutes before halftime proved to be the most costly error. In position to potentially move ahead after Nevada gained starting field position at the Bulldogs 21-yard line because of a Fresno State fumble on a kick return, Fajardo began the drive with a pass that was intercepted by inside linebacker Karl Mickelsen.
The Bulldogs then marched 55 yards on eight plays and scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run by Burrell to take a 28-20 lead into halftime.
But what happened next might have been even more crucial as Bulldogs defensive coordinator Nick Toth made halftime adjustments that helped Fresno State after the break limit Nevada to just three first downs and 100 total yards.
Nevada's sudden propensity to cough up the ball certainly aided Fresno State's defense. Wold Pack receiver Jerico Richardson fumbled on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. The Bulldogs answered with another touchdown drive as Burrell found a wide-open Aaron Peck down the middle of the coverage and in the end zone for a 26-yard pass that extended the Bulldogs' lead to 35-20.
Running back Josh Quezada, who filled in for Waller, gained 119 yards on 24 carries along with 58 yards on a game-high seven receptions. Waller is expected to be evaluated Sunday and DeRuyter said doctors told him Waller would be fine moving forward.
Without Waller, Burrell spread his passes around as seven Fresno State players made a catch and three caught a touchdown.
Peck finished with four catches for 71 yards and a career-high two touchdowns. Inside receiver Greg Watson also had four catches for a game-high 89 yards and one score. Josh Harper added six catches for 65 yards and one touchdown.
DeRuyter praised the Bulldogs' perseverance.
"Just like anything in life: It's not a sin to get knocked down, but get your butt back up," he said. "We got knocked down pretty good. But we got our butts back up, got back in the fight.
"Kids start believing in themselves, and you see the results."