With four games remaining in what’s shaping up as the least successful season of Fresno State football since feathered hair and bell bottoms, the Bulldogs should start flipping the calendar to 2016.
They should, but they won’t.
They won’t because of stubborn pride and loyalty.
Referring to Thursday night’s contest against Nevada at Bulldog Stadium, coach Tim DeRuyter said Fresno State “will play this game like it’s the last game anybody’s going to play.”
That quote offered everything you’d expect from a football coach trying to make the best of a 2-6 campaign – swagger, bravado, bluster – but very little in the way of long-term thinking.
Time for a reality check.
Fresno State has nothing left to play for this season. While it’s mathematically possible to finish .500, that would require a complete suspension of belief from what we’ve seen these past two months.
“I want to go out with four straight wins,” senior defensive end Todd Hunt said. Of course you do, Todd. Of course you do. And I want to sprout hair like Brad Pitt’s in “Legends of the Fall.”
“I want to go out with four straight wins,” senior defensive end Todd Hunt said Monday.
Of course you do, Todd. Of course you do. And I want to sprout hair like Brad Pitt’s in “Legends of the Fall.”
I’m not saying the Bulldogs shouldn’t prepare well, play hard and do everything they can to finish 2015 on a crescendo. Of course they should. But they need to be smart about it. They should end this year with one eye toward the next one.
What do I mean by that?
I mean give significant playing time to more underclassmen, guys who will have an impact in 2016.
In some respects, Fresno State is already doing this – by necessity. You need only look at the media notes to see the Bulldogs have used 19 first-time starters, tied for the fourth-highest among FBS teams.
But to say this team is young is … well, erroneous.
Look closer at the depth chart, which lists five senior starters on offense and six more on defense. That’s half the starting lineup comprising players who will not help Fresno State win any games next season.
This doesn’t apply to every position group. For example, the Bulldogs have three senior tailbacks getting carries, and it doesn’t make sense to pull the redshirt of a promising freshman like Wesley Hill just to get him some experience.
At other positions, however, it makes a ton of sense. Fresno State counts five seniors among its eight starters on the offensive and defensive lines – positions where the Bulldogs are regularly getting manhandled and outplayed.
What’s the harm in seeing what sophomore David Patterson can do at left tackle, what freshman Zack Kinninger can do at right tackle or what freshman Kyle Hendrickson can do at end?
I think it’s a disservice to our seniors if you think in those terms, and it’s contrary to everything we preach about. We preach that this week, throw the records out, we’re going 1-0.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
I’m not saying bench all the senior starters. Just give certain underclassmen who figure to be in expanded roles next season a leg up on what to expect. Give them some valuable playing time, and not just during blowouts. So they’ll be a little better prepared next September for that trip to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
And if the young guys falter, no biggie. At least they’ll head into the offseason with a real sense of how much they need to improve. So, too, will the coaches.
Of course I don’t expect anyone with a Bulldogs logo on their polo shirt or helmet to agree. Inside that locker room exists the firm belief they’ll win four straight and end this season .500. It has to be that way, or else why compete?
You and I, though, we don’t live inside that bubble. We inhabit a separate reality, the one that has watched these Bulldogs repeatedly get sand kicked in their faces.
Why not take every possible measure to ensure it doesn’t happen again next year?
“I think it’s a disservice to our seniors if you think in those terms, and it’s contrary to everything we preach about,” DeRuyter said. “We preach that each week we go 1-0. I know the outside world looks at things a little differently, but we don’t.”
When I suggested to Hunt the Bulldogs could reap future benefits giving more playing time to his backup, Hendrickson, the senior shook his head.
“From a coaching standpoint, me still playing is benefiting him as well, because he’s young and he’s still learning,” Hunt said. “He still gets a lot of playing time, and he’ll get his start when it’s time.”
11 Number of senior starters listed on Fresno State’s current depth chart
With due respect to Hunt and others who are winding down their football careers, that time is now.
The Bulldogs must win one of their remaining games to avoid becoming the first team in school history with double-digit losses (as colleague David White helpfully pointed out).
It’s also been 37 years (1978!) since Fresno State compiled fewer than four wins. Jim Sweeney went 4-7 in 1996, his final season. Pat Hill went 4-8 in 2006 and 4-9 in 2011, which turned out to be his final season.
The Bulldogs have to finish 2-2 just to reach the plateau that got DeRuyter’s predecessors fired.
For reasons previously discussed, mainly the 4.6 million guaranteed dollars remaining on his contract, a similar fate won’t befall DeRuyter. But if Fresno State suffers a third straight losing season in 2016 (remember last year’s 6-8 mark), he likely won’t be so fortunate.
With that in mind, time to start preparing for the future and stop trying to salvage the present. Leave this shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean.
Up next for ’Dogs
FRESNO STATE VS. NEVADA
- Thursday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 2-6, 1-4; Wolf Pack 4-4, 2-2
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)