Football season at Fresno State should be over.
There should not be canned crowd noise pumping through stadium speakers. The Bulldogs should not be preparing for Saturday’s Mountain West Conference championship against Boise State, designing a scheme for Jay Ajayi, the Broncos’ 1,600-yard tailback. Or even paying the slightest attention to where or whom they’ll play in a bowl.
To borrow coach Tim DeRuyter’s choice of descriptors, Fresno State was “buried” after losing at home by four touchdowns to Wyoming. Everyone attended the wake. I sprinkled lye and you gripped shovels.
Only these Bulldogs weren’t willing corpses. They won three straight games (two in convincing fashion and one less so) to get to 6-6. The season marches on.
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“We’re playing for a conference championship, and guys take tremendous pride in that,” DeRuyter said following a recent practice. “The fact that we had a bumpy road to get here maybe makes us a little more invested.
“We realize how much it hurts when you lose, where a year ago things came relatively easy. This year we’ve had to battle our tails off just to get to this point.”
There’s some sentiment that DeRuyter and his staff did the best coaching of their tenures over these past few weeks. Not sure I agree. What they did in Year 1 — transforming 4-9 into 9-4 — tops my list.
These past three games are more a confirmation of Fresno State’s solid foundation under the current regime. Confirmation the program is on solid footing with bedrock values deeply instilled.
The Bulldogs took repeated blows, some right to the chin. They staggered but didn’t topple. Not only that, they got better.
Because of that resiliency, Fresno State gets to play two more games and practice at least three more weeks before equipment manager Mark Younger rounds up the helmets and shoulder pads.
As much as these next two games (Saturday’s in particular) will define how the 2014 Bulldogs are remembered, next year’s team benefits irrespective of either outcome.
While this season has often been defined as a “transition year” due to the departures of Derek Carr, Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse, et al., I’d argue 2015 will be every bit its equal in that department.
Sure, Fresno State should have Marteze Waller at tailback and Brian Burrell has emerged at quarterback. Alex Fifita is a solid left tackle and Charles Washington has come on at cornerback.
Beyond that are a lot more question marks than exclamation points. If you think DeRuyter had a tough job this year, just wait.
Next year’s defensive line will look much different (and less formidable) without Tyeler Davison, and it’s hard to imagine a Bulldogs secondary without Derron Smith. The linebacker corps loses pillars Donavon Lewis and Karl Mickelsen, who had a rough year but played his best when it mattered most.
On offense Fresno State must replace Josh Harper, the only no-questions-asked receiving threat, as well as cornerstone left guard Cody Wichmann.
Of the Bulldogs’ eight players named either All-MW first team, second team or honorable mention, five were seniors. Everyone except Waller, Fifita and tight end Chad Olsen.
Thanks in large part to its senior class, Fresno State’s 21 first-year players (including eight redshirt freshmen and eight true freshmen) will gain the experience of suiting up for a championship game in a hostile environment.
Most of them will play in it, too, including probable starters Malcolm Washington at cornerback and Delvon Hardaway at outside receiver.
That experience might not pay immediate dividends — the Bulldogs are three-touchdown underdogs to Boise State, after all — but sure could next season when Fresno State visits Ole Miss, BYU or even some hostile MW stadium.
“It’s huge,” DeRuyter said. “You want all the first-year guys in your program to get in the habit of preparing for championship games and preparing for bowls. This does nothing but benefit you in the future.”
The Bulldogs are preparing for Saturday night as they would any regular-season road game. There’s just more at stake than usual.
Things will change next week when the team begins bowl preparations. Although the conference’s slew of pre-Christmas games doesn’t allow enough days on the calendar to use up all 15 practices allowed by the NCAA, there’s still ample time to give second- and third-stringers extra work.
First-year players, during normal practices, are typically assigned scout team duties. During bowl practices, extra periods will be set aside for them to run Fresno State’s own schemes. That type of development typically occurs only in spring football and during bye weeks.
(The MW bowl picture will be sorted out Sunday. The Bulldogs are guaranteed a trip somewhere, even at 6-7, by winning the West Division.)
This is one way successful college football programs maintain success, squeezing every drop of value out of every opportunity for improvement.
So credit both players and coaches for doing more than just salvaging this season. They also helped lay tracks for the next one.