You kinda knew the outcome beforehand, right? You knew Fresno State wasn’t going to march into Memorial Stadium, in front of 90,013 of the nicest football fans on Earth, and knock off Nebraska.
All you wanted was for the Bulldogs to put up a strong fight. Your expectations were reasonable.
And Fresno State did put up a fight, showing more competitiveness and combativeness (at least 75 percent of the way) than we’ve seen the past two seasons against Power Five conference opponents.
Why does Saturday night’s loss to Nebraska leave a slightly acidic taste? Because it would’ve been much closer if the Bulldogs didn’t make a litany of little mistakes before their big letdown.
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So then why does Saturday night’s 43-10 loss to the Cornhuskers leave a slightly acidic taste? Because it would’ve been much closer if the Bulldogs didn’t make a litany of little mistakes before suffering a big letdown. Because the halftime score was 14-10. Because in the third quarter they began two drives on Nebraska’s side of the 50-yard line, down by 11, with a chance to pull within a touchdown, and didn’t do squat.
Because the final score wasn’t truly indicative of how close this game felt most of the way.
“I told our guys the final score wasn’t good enough,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “But we have a chance to be a really good football team, and our guys realize that.”
The Bulldogs had their chances Saturday as well. They let most of them evaporate into the cloudy evening.
Start with the final drive of the first half, when Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford was flagged for targeting quarterback Chason Virgil on third-and-13. The hit sent Virgil to the sideline wiggling his left shoulder funny.
In came backup Zach Kline, who completed 4 of 5 passes for 50 yards and led the Bulldogs within spitting distance of the end zone. That’s the good news. The bad news was shoddy clock management. Rather inexplicably, no one called timeout as the final minute ticked away even though they had two remaining.
Instead of a potential 14-14 halftime tie, they settled for a field goal.
We would’ve liked to have one more play there. We had two timeouts, but we had plenty of time had we got to the line and called it.
coach Tim DeRuyter on Fresno State’s clock-management issues at the end of the first half
“It was really loud – I don’t think Zach was aware of the time,” DeRuyter said. “We got the play in with about 30 seconds left and he was waiting. I wasn’t sure why. We would’ve liked to have one more play there. We had two timeouts, but we had plenty of time had we got to the line and called it.”
OK, I get it. In a 33-point game, those four points seem pretty piddly. But they felt big at the time and let Nebraska off the hook.
Virgil returned in the second half and postgame declared his shoulder “fine.” Fresno State’s offense, however, was not. The Bulldogs were blanked in the second half despite enjoying excellent field position.
After the offense went three-and-out on the opening drive of the third quarter, the coverage team failed to notice when a Blake Cusick punt appeared to carom off the return man. Instead of pouncing on the football, they let it bounce out of bounds near midfield. (Strength and conditioning coach Thomas Stallworth let a couple of players have it on the sideline.)
Keep in mind the score was still 14-10 at that point. I’m not saying that play affected the outcome – certainly not – but if the Bulldogs recover that punt it certainly changes the complexion.
Of course I’m assuming Fresno State would’ve taken advantage of that field position. Later in the quarter, the offense began two drives on Nebraska’s side of the field and came away with zero points.
The poor clock management before halftime and failure to notice a live ball were mental mistakes. The biggest physical error was made by receiver KeeSean Johnson, who let what would’ve been a first-down reception on third-and-8 bounce off his hands and into the air, where it was intercepted by safety Kieron Williams.
“I was fully confident we were going to go down and score and make it a one-score game,” DeRuyter said. “But give Nebraska credit. They stopped us.”
The big play by the Huskers defense begat one by the offense. On the second play of the ensuing drive, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw a 57-yard bomb to Alonzo Moore for a touchdown that made the score 28-10.
For the Bulldogs, there would be no bouncing back.
To beat a team like Nebraska, it takes more than a few bright spots. It takes a collective effort that’s both pugnacious and mistake-free.
It would be easy to look at 43-10 and declare this game a wipeout. Except the stats don’t bear that out. Nebraska outgained Fresno State 406 to 274 in total offense. Not a huge margin. First downs were even closer: 20 for the Huskers, 17 for the Bulldogs.
The biggest discrepancy was in the run game. Fresno State mustered just 31 yards on 26 attempts compared to Nebraska’s 51 for 292 (113 coming in the fourth quarter). But did you really expect the Bulldogs to run on the Huskers? I’m guessing not.
There were bright spots. Virgil looked solid, completing 17 of 32 passes for 133 yards. Senior receiver Aaron Peck, in his first game since the 2014 Hawaii Bowl, had nine catches for 112 yards, including an acrobatic snag for Fresno State’s only touchdown. Johnson played well except for that bobble. Senior linebacker Jeff Camilli had 10 total tackles. Robert Stanley, a junior linebacker, set up Peck’s score with a blocked punt.
Of course, to beat a team like Nebraska, it takes more than a few bright spots. It takes a collective effort that’s both pugnacious and mistake-free. The Bulldogs did not do that. That’s why they lost decisively.
Yes, we’ve seen this act before. Still, there were enough indications to make you think it’s not the same cast.
“You’ll see next week,” Camilli said in reference to the Sept. 10 home opener against Sacramento State. “We’ll come out chippy. We’ll be ready to go, very ready to go.”
I believe him.