Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter took off on a recruiting trip on Sunday, boarding his flight without knowing who the Bulldogs would be playing in the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl. It was down to two teams, Rice being one, and as it turned out the one. But the Bulldogs coach did know that the angles this time would be different than the past two years, when they absorbed blowout losses to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2013 and Southern Methodist in the Hawaii Bowl in '12.
"I think any time you don't have success in a couple of bowls in a row, there's just more and more concern that, 'Hey, we have to finish this thing right,' " DeRuyter said.
"Nobody likes that taste left in your mouth for the entire offseason when you lose your last game and we've got a chance to correct that. I'm sure we're going to have a very bowl-worthy opponent and we're going to have to continue to improve. We did some good things (Saturday night) against Boise but we're still not where we need to be to be at a conference-champion level. Hopefully with another couple of weeks of practice we're good enough to be at a bowl-champion level."
Fresno State at 6-7 is the only bowl team this season with a losing record -- the Bulldogs became bowl-eligible by winning the West Division of the Mountain West -- and has some work to do there.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season ranked fourth in the Mountain West Conference in total offense (417.7 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense (28.1 ppg). But they are only eighth in third down conversions (37.8%) and after losing three turnovers in the loss to Boise State in the championship game are tied with a 2-11 UNLV squad for ninth in turnovers lost (25). Defensively, Fresno State is just 10th in total defense (455.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (32.6 ppg).
With DeRuyter and the assistant coaches on the road recruiting at the start of the week, the Bulldogs are tentatively set to hold bowl practices on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and will work a practice schedule around final exams next week.
The Hawaii Bowl is Dec. 24 at Aloha Stadium. Kickoff is 5 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPN.
"Obviously, we get another couple of weeks to practice, not just with our older guys in getting ready for this game, but with your younger guys and we'll take advantage of that and get our young guys more practice time," DeRuyter said.
"We're going to have to rely on a bunch of younger guys next year as sophomores and redshirt freshmen to be in the mix and to get them a couple more weeks of practice is always good. I really like the development of this younger class and this will give them another opportunity and for the guys playing in this bowl, we'll miss obviously the 20 seniors that are going to be going on, but we have a lot of underclassmen that are going to be playing in this bowl, some of them playing and starting in a bowl for the first time and I think that experience will be critical going forward."
Rice, which finished second in the West Division of Conference USA, also started the season 0-3, losing at Notre Dame and Texas A&M and to Old Dominion before winning six games in a row.
The Owls are in a bowl for a school-record third year in a row, having lost to Mississippi State last season in the Liberty Bowl and beaten Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl.
The Bulldogs and Owls share one common opponents -- both played Hawaii. Fresno State beat the Rainbow Warriors 28-21 on Nov. 29 to clinch the West Division title while Rice beat Hawaii 28-14 on Oct. 4, the second victory in their six-game winning streak.
"I think there's an even bigger onus on us to win this bowl game to send the seniors out the right way," DeRuyter said. "Right now, their legacy is the first Fresno State team to start 0-3 and get a bowl bid. I think we need to make it be the first Fresno State team to not only get a bowl bid but to go 0-3 and win a bowl. We're really excited to go back to Hawaii. The people there were terrific to us the last time we were there, but we've got finish this season the right way and we look forward to preparing for the Hawaii Bowl."