Well, now. That came out of thin air.
Fresno State figured to have a tough time keeping pace with Pistol-packing Nevada on Saturday night.
Especially when star tailback Marteze Waller got his bell rung and left the game in the first quarter. Even more so when Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo started ripping off touchdown runs from beyond midfield.
Then something strange and unexpected happened. Two somethings, actually. The Bulldogs’ passing game, a pedestrian outfit most of the season, suddenly took flight. And Nevada, one of the nation’s least turnover-prone teams, came down with a sudden case of the oopsies.
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Combine those elements, let them swirl around the chilly, breezy air of Mackay Stadium and what resulted was a 40-20 Fresno State triumph that leaves the Bulldogs one win shy of their stated goal.
Beat Hawaii next week at Bulldog Stadium and Fresno State will be playing for a third straight Mountain West Conference championship. (A loss might do the trick, too, but there are complications.)
What seemed highly unlikely on that October night in Las Vegas and unfathomable three weeks ago against Wyoming is now 60 minutes from reality.
Brian Burrell, the quarterback that everyone (coaching staff included) wanted benched, now qualifies as a bonafide folk hero after passing for 313 yards and four touchdowns and running for another.
Karl Mickelsen, the linebacker maligned for his poor angles to the football, contributed a momentum-altering interception and a saving tackle on fourth down.
What a turnaround.
These Bulldogs sure are a confounding bunch.
In games you expect them to play well (UNLV, Wyoming), they come out flatter than a bike tire ridden through 2 miles of broken glass.
Then in games you suspect they’ll roll over (Boise State, San Jose State), they look like worthy successors to the back-to-back MW champions.
So who knew what to expect in chilly northern Nevada. It could be fireworks. It could be stink bombs.
Turned out we got a little of both. But definitely more of the former.
Early on the Bulldogs’ ground game carried the load. That is until Waller rumbled 21 yards, got decked near the sideline and was declared out for the game after being administered the requisite concussion tests.
Burrell immediately sprung to life by firing three touchdown passes, each to different receivers, and rushing for another on a perfectly executed read option.
And that was just in the first half.
Fresno State scored first on a touchdown set up by a rare Fajardo fumble. Nevada’s senior quarterback seemed to take offense because he ripped off two long touchdown runs (of 60 and 55 yards) to put the Wolf Pack ahead.
Then something happened that won’t make the box score. While scrambling to the sideline, Fajardo absorbed a crunching blow from Bulldogs cornerback Charles Washington.
Fajardo never left the game, nor did he appear injured. But after Washington’s hit, those long runs all but vanished.
Burrell’s one big mistake, an interception to a defensive lineman on a dump-off pass, set up the Wolf Pack’s third touchdown.
That touched off a wild sequence. Fresno State’s Dillon Root fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but Fajardo immediately gave the ball back to the Bulldogs by hitting Mickelsen in the chest with a pass.
After an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Nevada, Burrell marched the Bulldogs 55 yards on eight plays before scoring himself on a 1-yard read option.
Fajardo probably felt he owed the Bulldogs one. He still does.
Nevada’s quarterback is one of just two players in FBS history with 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing. Mighty impressive. (Predecessor Colin Kaepernick is the other.) But in three games against the Bulldogs, Fajardo’s 60% completion rate and 3.9-yards per carry average are well off his career marks (66.1% and 5.3).
Those woes continued Saturday night. The Wolf Pack, for all their early offensive might, didn’t even score in the second half. Not one measly point. Crazy, I know.
Fresno State-Nevada always has been a regional rivalry but not so much a heated one.
The schools recruit many of the same players. (Nevada lists nine central San Joaquin Valley natives on its roster, including senior receiver Kendall Brock of Fresno.) Still, you don’t sense any real animosity. At least not between the respective fan bases.
That is not to say things are all lovey dovey. Especially when the inside lane to the division title is at stake.
So after three months of ups and downs, consternation and teeth-gnashing, the Bulldogs find themselves right where most everyone expected them to be all along.
The results haven’t been pretty, as indicated by Fresno State’s 5-6 record. The Bulldogs could very well end up being one of those rare bowl teams with more losses than wins, a distinction they’ll surely get blistered for by the national media.
But at this point, there will be no cares given. None whatsoever.