Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Bulldogs can take another loss, not another blowout

After Saturday, there is no reset button.

Because Fresno State lost so decisively last week, and left unanswered most of the pressing questions (Quarterback? Cornerback? Leadership?), there's a tendency to want to shrug it off and start anew.

Besides, USC is so darned stinking talented. Right? More talented than any team the Bulldogs will face this season. Right? Optimistic observers spent all week thinking and repeating these excuses, because the alternative is too unpleasant to contemplate.

On Saturday afternoon against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, at the base of the Wasatch Range, we find out if that's true.

We'll find out if these Bulldogs have teeth.

Fresno State doesn't have to win to alter the season's trajectory. Of course, that would be preferable. Just as important is playing 60 minutes of competitive, back-and-forth football -- which didn't happen against USC.

In other words, don't get blown out.

Yeah, I know. "Don't get blown out" is a terrible rallying cry. Not something coach Tim DeRuyter can work into his pregame speech.

Still, it's the one outcome that must be avoided.

A narrow loss to Utah would be disappointing, to be sure. But as long as a few positives spring from it, such as one or both quarterbacks making plays with his arm or the defense showing more resiliency on third down, there still will be some momentum for next week's home opener against Nebraska.

Another walkover brings everything to a screeching halt.

I'm not just talking about fan interest and energy, though Fresno State fans are notorious for hopping off the bandwagon when things start to decelerate.

It's more about the confidence and self-belief players must carry going forward to have any chance of defending their Mountain West Conference title.

This is where the brutal nonconference schedule does zero favors -- while exposing a certain blind spot.

There seems to be a prevailing theory that the Bulldogs can afford to lose to USC, Utah and Nebraska, even decisively, because once conference play arrives they'll flip a switch and things will return to normal.

Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

Here's where the typical fan (and, in many cases, media) mindset doesn't match what computes in the brain synapses of 18- to 23-year-old young men.

Many people outside the program were quick to discount the USC flop because, well, they didn't expect the Bulldogs to win in the first place.

And those who say they expected Fresno State to get routed even further diminish its importance.

Problem is, college football players don't share that mindset. There wasn't a single Bulldog in uniform who didn't believe Fresno State could beat the Trojans -- or at the very least hang with them.

Except that didn't happen. It's why I saw so many stunned, confused faces trudging into the locker room -- and an angry one belonging to senior team captain Derron Smith.

"What we showed last week," Smith said, "that's not the team we are."

No doubt Smith believes what he says. He's an All-Mountain West safety and a key member of the two-year turnaround under DeRuyter.

But what about the new guys? Or the second-year player who has now experienced three losses (surrendering a total of 159 points) in his past four games dating to last season?

Right about now, their self-belief isn't as strong as Smith's.

"Our veteran guys know what it takes to get knocked down and get back up," DeRuyter said. "The younger guys you always worry about, and we've got a few of them.

"It's a matter of holding guys to a standard. I explained to them Monday, 'Fifty percent of the teams lost their first game. The difference is the ones that get up off that mat, go back into the fight and do so with confidence.' "

More than anything else, confidence is what Saturday's game is about. Fresno State needs to gather some before next week.

Beating Utah obviously would be ideal, but losing won't be a crushing blow provided these things happen:

Each is possible in a competitive, hard-fought game. Even one that ends in defeat.

Just don't tell that to Smith.

"We're not going into any games just trying to be there in the fourth quarter," he spat. "We're trying to win."

Winning is the primary objective. It has to be. I get it. But even more important than that is flying back to Fresno with renewed confidence and looking forward to what comes next.

Instead of dreading it.