Amid views of vibrant green mountains, sunsets along the beach and the occasional turtle sighting, Fresno State still can’t help but feel uneasy.
The Bulldogs’ lasting memory of their previous Hawaii Bowl trip resonates like a seasickness-plagued cruise — remembered for all the wrong reasons.
For all the success that Fresno State has enjoyed in coach Tim DeRuyter’s three seasons — including two Mountain West championships, a conference divisional crown in 2014 and three consecutive bowl bids — a bowl victory, or for that matter even a good bowl performance, has proven elusive.
The Bulldogs’ bad bowl run actually dates to before DeRuyter’s arrival, with the last win coming in the 2007 Humanitarian.
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“Fresno State hasn’t had much bowl success lately,” senior defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “Hasn’t had a lot of wins in Hawaii, either.
“We need to change that.”
Fresno State (6-7) can end the drought when it takes on Rice (7-5) Wednesday. Two years ago, Fresno State lost to Southern Methodist 43-10 at this same bowl and last season the Bulldogs fell to USC 45-20 in Las Vegas — the most lopsided bowl beating in program history.
“It’s a chance to kind of exorcise some demons from this last year, exorcise some demons from the last couple of years in not winning a bowl,” DeRuyter said. “I think this year, (with) the fact that we didn’t win a conference championship, there’s nothing anticlimactic about this bowl.
“This is what we’re here for. Our guys have not won a bowl championship. Our guys have prepared with that attitude that, ‘Hey, we’ve got something to prove.’ ”
Fresno State can at best finish .500 on the season, but a bowl win still would be quite a feat for a team that lost its first three games by a combined 166-59 and nearly had its season capsize fully in November in a 45-17 loss to a Wyoming team that would go 4-8.
Embattled junior quarterback Brian Burrell, concluding his first year as the starter, also could accomplish something neither his all-star predecessor nor that predecessor’s equally accomplished older brother could attain.
Future NFL quarterbacks Derek Carr (2009-13) and David Carr (1997-2001) never won a bowl game during their Fresno State careers, combining to go 0-7 overall during their Bulldogs tenures and 0-4 as starters in bowls.
The last time Fresno State won a bowl, it was Tom Brandstater at the controls under the tutelage of Jim McElwain, the one-year offensive coordinator who went on to win a pair of national championships as an Alabama assistant and is now Florida’s head coach.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Burrell said. “It’s probably not how we would’ve planned things. But we’re in position to win a bowl. It’d be big if we could win in Hawaii. It’d send our seniors off the right way and we could use the momentum to build into next year.”
But if there’s a team that can relate to Fresno State’s grind-the-gears path to the island, it's the Bulldogs' opponent Wednesday. Rice lost its first three, then won six straight to earn a third consecutive bowl bid for the first time in school history.
The Owls, who check in as a 2.5-point favorite after opening as a 1-point underdog, always believed they were a good team and capable of landing in another bowl.
“We knew that even during our early struggles,” Rice defensive end Brian Nordstrom said, “that if we continued to work hard, we could turn it around.”
The Bulldogs did not lock up a bid until beating Hawaii in the regular-season finale.
Fresno State followed with a 28-14 loss to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship, continuing a seasonlong struggle to establish and maintain confidence.
Turnovers have caused much of Fresno State’s instability. The Bulldogs have 25 giveaways, including Burrell’s 16 interceptions.
Burrell, with an interception total that is the highest by a Bulldog since Kevin Sweeney had 19 during his first season as a starter in 1983, has been picked off in 11 straight games.
And facing an Owls team that’s committed only 12 turnovers (12th best in the nation), Fresno State likely cannot afford another rash of mistakes.
“You can’t make errant throws,” DeRuyter said. “But what I like about Brian is he’s constantly learning. When he makes a mistake, he can come over to the sideline and say ‘Hey this is what I saw.’
“We’ve just got to get him to the point where when we’re in the fog of war, in the heat of the battle, to make those good decisions. That comes with experience.”
Win or lose, the Bulldogs are in line to make history.
Fresno State can snap its bowl skid or become the first Bulldogs team to lose to Rice. Fresno State is 6-0 all-time in the series.
“The past years, we’ve treated the bowls more like a vacation, saw it more like a reward,” Bulldogs junior center Bo Bonnheim said. “This year, with the tough season that we had, we want to go out on top and end the year with a more memorable finish.”
Break in wet weather
Both teams were able to get back to enjoying some fun in the sun Tuesday before the focus shifted fully to football.
After rain-soaked workouts Monday, blue skies and temperatures in the high 70s greeted the schools for light, walk-through practices.
Conditions could switch back at kickoff, with weather.com projecting a 45% chance of rain though a temperature in the mid-70s.