There should be no lack of emotion Saturday at Bulldog Stadium.
Fresno State (5-6, 4-3) has a Mountain West divisional crown and a conference title-game appearance at stake, as well as a bowl bid.
The Bulldogs also can make history on Senior Day with a victory against Hawaii — they’re in line to become the first football team in school history to start 0-3 but still earn a bowl bid and a chance to play for a conference championship.
Even Hawaii (4-8, 3-4) has an outside possibility of winning the West Division by beating Fresno State.
It’s why coach Tim DeRuyter believes his Bulldogs had one of their best weeks of practices. But just before the Bulldogs broke their final practice huddle of the week Friday night, DeRuyter reminded them again how nothing has been achieved yet.
“We know we’ve got a great opportunity, but that’s all it is — an oppotunity,” DeRuyter said. “You look at college football (Friday). I’m sure Colorado State and UCLA thought they’d have a chance to play in championship game, but it didn’t work out for them. We have an opportunity to perform (Saturday), and we need to perform.
“Our guys know how important this week has been. We’ve got to play our best game of the year. We’re going to play an inspired Hawaii team that’s won two straight games going in. And they’d like nothing better than to give themselves a chance. And who knows what happens if they knock us off and maybe they play in the championship game.”
The emotions were just beginning to brew Friday night as Fresno State held its annual “Senior Tackle” tradition with family and friends watching on after practice. Each of the 19 seniors said a quick speech before running down the field between two lines formed by their teammates and tackling a practice dummy at the end zone.
“Let’s turn up tomorrow,” Bulldogs offensive captain Josh Harper said as he addressed his teammates during Senior Tackle. “Let’s get this W. Turn it up.”
Even some of the Bulldogs’ more reserved players couldn’t help but get caught up in the emotional rise in their Senior Tackle speeches.
“I’m from Hawaii, but forget that team tomorrow — we’re going to beat that team,” said senior nose guard Ioane Sagapolu, who had family from the island fly to Fresno for this regular-season finale.
Added running back Josh “Juice” Quezada: “Our goals are all ahead of us. I came here with no expectations and I’ve already been through two rings. I’m thankful for that. Let’s go for this W. Let’s go get this championship.”
Two factors have fueled some of the Bulldogs’ best performances this season: a strong running game and forced turnovers.
Fresno State is 4-0 when it’s topped 200-plus rushing yards. The ground game should be boosted further with the return of junior running back Marteze Waller, who was sidelined last week in Fresno State’s 40-20 victory at Nevada. Waller has rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
An established ground attack has helped the passing game. Junior quarterback Brian Burrell has completed 64.9% of his passes with 12 touchhdowns to four interceptions and averaged 242.3 passing yards in the four games Fresno State rushed for 200 yards. In the seven games Fresno State failed to reach 200 yards on the ground, Burrell has completed 52.9% of his passes with nine touchdowns to six interceptions and averaged 159 passing yards.
Hawaii ranks 74th in the country in run defense (172.4 yards per game) and 97th in pass defense (252.8).
Fresno State’s defense, meanwhile, has had its best outings when it’s come up with turnovers.
Fresno State has generated seven turnovers in its past two games combined, including a season-best four at Nevada, and has 18 (11 fumbles, seven interceptions) on the season. In addition, the Bulldogs have done a better job turning turnovers into points. In the win against Nevada, Fresno State generated 24 points off the Wolf Pack mistakes.
Hawaii has been one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country, tied for 116th with 25 turnovers allowed (13 fumbles, 12 interceptions). The Warriors, however, have just two (both interceptions) in their past two games combined.
“You get two teams that are fairly equal, and turnovers almost always are the deciding factor,” DeRuyter said. “One of the reasons why we like to get takeaways is because the momentum you get from it hopefully propels your offense. And when you do take advantage of it, it can be doubly crippling to your opponent.”
Three Bulldogs seniors received early invitations to postseason all-star games: Receiver Josh Harper and safety Derron Smith both received invites to participate in the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game, and cornerback Curtis Riley was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game.
The Senior Bowl is scheduled Jan. 24 in Mobile, Ala.; the East-West Shrine Game is Jan. 17 in St. Petersburg, Fla.