Jeff Tedford felt anxious and tense. Not only during the final frantic moments of Saturday’s 13-7 victory over Wyoming at War Memorial Stadium, with the Cowboys threatening to score the go-ahead touchdown, but also 2 hours before kickoff.
Fresno State survived the Cowboys’ last-gasp drive when defensive end Robert Stanley tackled Wyoming quarterback Nick Smith (filling in for the injured Josh Allen) for no gain on the game’s final play at the 27-yard line.
But just getting to the stadium proved a challenge for the Bulldogs, who stayed 50 miles away in Cheyenne.
An overnight storm closed Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, forcing the team buses (and yours truly) to take an alternate route through the high plains known by the locals as Happy Jack Road. Accidents and snowdrift reduced traffic to a crawl, pushing what’s normally a 45-minute drive to more than 2 hours.
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“We were on the bus, and we could see down the road,” said linebacker George Helmuth, who recorded 11 tackles and came up with a key fumble recovery that set up Fresno State’s only touchdown.
“We thought it was fog, but it turned out to be ice and wind. It was like, ‘Oh, man. What did we get ourselves into?’ ”
The players weren’t the only ones feeling that way. The head coach did too, though he did his best not to show it.
“Very anxious, yeah,” Tedford said about the late arrival. “I didn’t let (the players) know I was nervous. Had to rush them a little bit. Because usually when you get to a game there’s a little time to relax and get ready.”
Arriving 90 minutes before the 12 p.m. Mountain Time kickoff, more than a half hour behind schedule, the Bulldogs had to rush their pregame routine. But in the end, it didn’t affect this unflappable bunch.
From rain and lightning in Hawaii to snowdrifts, brisk wind and sub-freezing temperatures in Wyoming, in consecutive weeks, there isn’t a climate Fresno State can’t overcome.
As a result, the Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1 Mountain West) are West Division champions and will play for the conference title in two weeks against the same Boise State team they host next Saturday. (The site of the championship game remains to be determined.)
Yes, it’s really true. One season after going 1-11 and bringing in a new coaching staff, Fresno State will play for its third Mountain West title since joining the conference in 2012.
“I had to clarify and make sure we were (division) champions,” Tedford said with a grin. “I had to ask for sure, ‘Does that really mean that we’re Western Division champions?’ and someone said ‘Yes.’ Before I told the team that, I wanted to make sure.”
Oh, it’s for sure all right. Unlikely and absolute.
As for the game itself, well, it was the low-scoring defensive battle just about everyone expected. Fresno State, as it has done so often this season, jumped out to a halftime lead and spent the entire second half playing from ahead.
The outcome never looked in doubt until Wyoming finally cracked the scoreboard with 2 minutes, 25 seconds left on a 6-yard pass from Smith to Nico Evans. The Bulldogs were unable to muster a first down on the ensuing drive, giving the Cowboys one final chance for the go-ahead score.
“It was definitely nerve-racking,” quarterback Marcus McMaryion said, “but I had complete faith in our defense.”
That faith turned out to be well-founded. Even though Fresno State allowed 53 yards on nine plays on the final drive, the Cowboys didn’t get within 27 yards of the end zone before time expired.
On the final play, with the crowd of 15,440 roaring in excitement, Smith stepped up in the pocket looking for a receiver in the end zone. He never got the pass off as Stanley closed in for the tackle at the line of scrimmage.
After a quick on-field celebration and congratulating a small group of Fresno State fans that made the trip, the Bulldogs trotted off the field to the warmth of their locker room.
When Tedford told the players they were division champs, the chant of “We’re goin’ to the ’ship!’ could be heard through multiple sets of closed doors outside the locker room.
“We can take this win and enjoy it tonight, but I’m sure Coach Tedford is going to get us grounded and get us ready for Boise State as soon as we get back,” said McMaryion, whose numbers (14 of 23 for 186 yards and a touchdown) would’ve looked prettier without a couple of drops that kept Wyoming in the game.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Bulldogs left some plays – as well as points – on the field. Against a better offensive team (i.e. Boise State), they’ll need to clean up that stuff or risk an unfamiliar come-from-behind scenario.
But on a day when they were late getting to the stadium and had to play at 7,220 feet of altitude in 27-degree temperatures and frigid 22-mph winds, the players and coaches still came up with a winning formula.
“We knew we could stop their offense, so our offense just ran the ball and chewed up clock,” Helmuth said.
Just as long as they made it to the stadium before kickoff.
FRESNO STATE VS. BOISE STATE
- Saturday, Nov. 25: 12:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 8-3, 6-1 Mountain West; Broncos 8-2, 6-0 (pending Saturday night game vs. Air Force)
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Boise State leads series 13-5, including two wins in Boise when the teams last met in 2014 – 37-27 in the regular season and 28-14 in the conference championship game. … The Mountain West announced that the Dec. 2 championship game will kick off at 4:45 p.m. PST on ESPN, but the site is to be determined. According to the conference, the host will be the team with the highest College Football Playoff Selection Committee ranking or composite computer ranking. This week, Boise State is No. 25 in the CFP rankings.
Fresno State 13, Wyoming 7
FRE — FG 27 Camacho, 8:17.
FRE — Rivers 21 pass from McMaryion (Camacho kick), 11:12.
FRE — FG 29 Camacho, 3:46.
WYO — Evans 6 pass from Smith (Rothe kick), 2:25.
A — 15,440.
Time of Possession
RUSHING — Fresno State, Hokit 21-69, Mims 13-40, Rivers 7-33, O’Neal 1-3, McMaryion 2-2, K.Johnson 1-0. Wyoming, Overstreet 10-31, Woods 6-22, Fort 2-13, Conway 3-10, N.Smith 7-1.
PASSING — Fresno State, McMaryion 14-23-0-186. Wyoming, N.Smith 20-32-0-231, (Team) 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — Fresno State, K.Johnson 6-48, D.Scott 4-42, Rivers 2-20, Jordan 1-44, Ja.Rice 1-32. Wyoming, Conway 7-105, Price 4-31, Fort 2-39, C.Johnson 2-20, Evans 2-10, Van Maanen 1-15, Woods 1-9, Harshman 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — None.