The question — “What are you doing in that situation?” — could be taken a couple of ways, but either way Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter had to run through the Bulldogs’ onside-kick schemes with the hands team, how they line up and react.
Catch the football. Secure the football. Protect the football.
The Bulldogs’ hands team did that Saturday night, preserving a 28-21 victory over Hawaii that clinched the Western Division title in the Mountain West, a berth in the conference title game and a shot at what would be a third consecutive championship ring.
For those brief seconds toward the end of the game, everything went right, which was not the case through much of the second half.
After Hawaii scored on a 2-yard pass from Ikaika Woolsey to Donnie King with 45 seconds remaining, the Rainbow Warriors lined up for the ensuing kickoff. DeRuyter called a timeout after seeing how they were lined up, just to go over everything and make sure everyone on his side was all there.
He need not worry about that.
“They were pretty much telling us to keep calm and that we were going to recover the ball. We knew,” said safety Shannon Edwards, who was stationed right in the line of fire. “We pretty much knew that the people on our hands team are able to catch the ball.”
When Hawaii kicker Tyler Hadden punched the ball forward, the third hop went high and past Josh Harper — out there, too, despite his status as the team’s top wideout — and right to Edwards, who went up and plucked it out of the air. When he hit the ground, he curled his body around the football and that was it.
“I felt like they were going to come toward me. I wanted it to end the game,” Harper said.
“We practice that all the time and most of the balls squirt through to my position, so I kind knew the ball was going to take that bounce and come to me,” Edwards said. “I was ready. … I wanted it.”
“We’re not putting guys out here that we’re just hoping can catch it,” DeRuyter said.
The Bulldogs executed, holding on to enough of what was a 28-0 lead through three quarters, and now next Saturday will play at Boise State for the Mountain West championship.
Which, of course, led to the question in the first place. What are you doing in that situation?
“Kind of like a year ago, ‘Why are you defending a Hail Mary?’ ” DeRuyter chuckled, referring to a 42-37 victory at Hawaii in which the Bulldogs led 42-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Fresno State (6-6) gained just 74 yards on 21 plays in the second half. Quarterback Brian Burrell threw two interceptions while trying to lead second-half drives that ended punt, interception, interception, punt — none netting more than 33 yards. The Bulldogs held possession for only 8:46 in the second half.
The Bulldogs’ defense, which had extended a string of scoreless quarters to five counting the last two in their victory at Nevada and first three against Hawaii, allowed the Rainbow Warriors to extend drives going 6 of 6 on fourth-down plays.
Hawaii scored all three of its fourth quarter touchdowns on fourth down and had a 22-yard gain on a fourth-and-10 pass play, a 16-yard completion on a fourth-and-2, and a 13-yard gain on a fourth-and-9 scramble by Woolsey.
Fresno State almost had the game put down when free safety Derron Smith scooped up a fumble by Woolsey — the Rainbow Warriors’ quarterback and running back Joey Iosefa got mixed up on a zone read — and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown. But that play was overturned on video review, the official in the booth ruling that Woolsey had touched down before the football came free.
But with 45 seconds remaining, and for about 3 seconds, the Bulldogs executed everything perfectly.
It happens, DeRuyter said, “When you turn the ball order and you don’t make a play on fourth down against a team that’s going to keep competing, and Hawaii kept competing, just like last year.
“They never gave up and we kept giving them reasons to stay in it by turning the ball over and letting them convert on some fourth downs. But when it came down to it, our guys found a way to make that final play and I think it is kind of apropos for this team. We’re not very far from bad and we’re not very far from good. We’re somewhere right in the middle.”