The quarterback carousel that Fresno State rode early in the season returned for the Bulldogs’ final game of the year.
And it caused just as much queasiness as the first time and left Fresno State’s bowl struggles at a new low.
Neither junior Brian Burrell nor senior Brandon Connette nor redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee could provide any type of offensive stability as the trio spearheaded the lowest scoring bowl in the program’s lengthy postseason history — a 30-6 loss to Rice in the Hawaii Bowl on Wednesday before an announced crowd of 25,365.
Burrell, the Bulldogs’ starter for 13 of 14 games, threw two interceptions and was sacked three times while completing 10 of 20 passes for 44 yards and no touchdowns.
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Connette, the Duke transfer brought in to compete to be the starter upon his arrival, didn’t attempt a pass and failed to generate a first down while in for one drive.
Greenlee, who started one game, appeared rattled in a little over a quarter yet managed to lead the Bulldogs with 49 yards on 7-of-18 passing.
“Clearly it’s frustrating,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “You prepare, you practice. I thought our guys were extremely competitive in practice. Then you come out against a good Rice team and get outplayed.
“We were struggling offensively. … Brian (was) not hanging in there, not trusting things. ... We threw a package (for Connette) we’d been practicing going into this final game. Offensively, we felt we needed a spark. We needed to change things up. ... (We had) Zack come in. He’s going to have a chance to compete in the spring. He deserved an opportunity to see what he could do down the stretch. ...
“Give (Rice) credit,” DeRuyter added. “They finished the season, after starting 0-3, the way we wanted to finish the season.”
The offensive problems led to a new level of bowl frustrations for the Bulldogs. In their first two bowls under DeRuyter, the Bulldogs in consecutive years surrendered the program’s most postseason points allowed. This year, they scored the fewest points in a game in DeRuyter’s three seasons. In all, Fresno State dropped its sixth straight bowl.
These Bulldogs finished 6-8 after beginning the season with three straight losses.
“This one just hurts the most,” senior inside linebacker Karl Mickelsen said. “A senior doesn’t want to lose his last game.”
Just as concerning is Fresno State’s future with an unsettled quarterback picture.
Burrell, in his first season starting, finished with 22 touchdowns to 18 interceptions, including at least one in each of his final 12 games.
Greenlee has hardly impressed in his brief stretches playing this season. The Bulldogs also have freshman Kilton Anderson, who redshirted this season, heralded recruit Chason Virgil, who had offers from Power 5 programs but chose Fresno State and will enroll this spring. But not even former Bulldogs star Derek Carr started as a true freshman.
“We’re going to go into this spring and see how everybody competes,” DeRuyter said. “Nobody has inherited any positions. We’ll go out and compete, see who comes out of it the best.”
Fresno State’s previous postseason scoring low also occurred in Hawaii — a 43-10 loss to Southern Methodist in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl.
There were other similarities to that game two years ago, such as another true freshman getting picked on by the opponent.
Last time, it was offensive lineman Alex Fifita who had trouble defending the Mustangs’ Margus Hunt. This time, it was defensive back Malcolm Washington who saw plenty of passes coming his way on a night Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson passed for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Jackson connected with receiver Dennis Parks for a 51-yard pass against Washington that led to Rice’s first touchdown for a 9-3 lead in the first quarter. Washington also got pancaked on a block that freed Rice receiver Dennis Parks for a 40-yard touchdown off a 2-yard screen pass as the Owls pushed their lead to 23-6 with 6:18 left in the third quarter.
Fresno State’s only points came from kicker Kody Kroening, who made 44- and 40-yard field goals.
“When you play in bowl games, obviously, you’re playing against good teams,” DeRuyter said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the top. That’s going to be our charge next year: We’ve got to be able to learn how to finish.”