Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: MW championship gives Fresno State a big chance for payback

BOISE, Idaho — Fresno State has waited 13 long years for a chance like this.

A chance for the Bulldogs to do to Boise State what the Broncos did to them. A chance to pull out the rug. A chance to reciprocate the heartache.

Officially, the two teams are playing for the Mountain West Conference football championship on Saturday night on the famous blue turf.

That’s what both head coaches and players are thinking and talking about.

“This is the biggest game we’ll have,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said during Friday’s media gathering at Albertsons Stadium. “It’s never going to get any bigger than this.”

“We don’t have anything else on our minds,” quarterback Grant Hedrick added.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Because the Broncos have a lot more at stake besides the conference title and shiny trophy that goes with it. Boise State, the top team in the College Football Playoff rankings from the so-called Group of 5 conferences, is one win from the third major bowl berth in school history.

Beat Fresno State, and the Broncos get a spot on the Fiesta Bowl marquee on New Year’s Eve. They get the hefty payday. They get the headlines and national acclaim.

Lose, and all that stuff vanishes into the slate gray skies above southern Idaho that are expected to bring rain (but not snow) before kickoff.

For the Bulldogs, a victory would mean even more than reaching their season-long goal of netting a third consecutive MW title. It would mean pure, unadulterated payback.

Fresno State and Boise State have played many big games since becoming conference rivals. None have meant as much as this.

Not even 2001.

Longtime Bulldogs fans shudder each time that game is mentioned. For those who don’t remember (or have chosen to forget), Fresno State was 6-0 when a little-known team coached by Dan Hawkins and quarterbacked by Ryan Dinwiddie came to Bulldog Stadium and shocked the nation’s No. 8-ranked squad.

For all of the program’s recent success under coach Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State has yet to regain those lofty heights.

And the Broncos have yet to come down. Since 2000, no college football outfit in America has a higher winning percentage (155-26, .856), a higher home winning percentage (85-4, .955) or averaged more points (40.2 per game).

A good chunk of that success has come at the Bulldogs’ expense. Since that 35-30 triumph in 2001 — the game Hawkins in a 2011 interview said put Boise State “on the map” — the Broncos are 10-2 against Fresno State in head-to-head meetings. Several were blowouts.

It’s enough to give Victor E. Bulldog II parasites.

Fresno State extracted a measure of revenge last season, eking out a 41-40 decision at Bulldog Stadium. But there’s still ample room for payback.

“Boise State is a big rivalry,” senior safety Derron Smith said. “We know we’re playing not just for ourselves but for all the Bulldogs from every era and for all the Bulldogs fans.”

DeRuyter, on the other hand, would prefer they didn’t.

“If our guys come out (Saturday) and let it rip — not worry about the past — then we’ve got a shot,” he said. “We can’t be worried about past ghosts or anything like that.”

Certainly the oddsmakers don’t have much belief in Fresno State. The betting line opened with Boise State as a 17-point favorite and moved as if on ice skates to 22.

The Bulldogs, who lost 37-27 here in mid-October, now aren’t expected to stay within three touchdowns of the 22nd-ranked Broncos.

It’s as if no one in Las Vegas paid any attention to Fresno State winning its past three games. Or else they paid closer attention to how Boise State has clobbered everyone in sight since the calendar flipped to October.

“That’s their opinion,” receiver Josh Harper said about the Bulldogs’ heavy underdog status. “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but we don’t have to listen to it. That’s why we play. Nobody knows who’s going to win.”

Smith added, “It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. We’re going to come out and play our best game of the season.”

That’s exactly what Fresno State must do to have any chance of winning. The Bulldogs will have to limit turnovers and force a few themselves. They’ll need to extend drives in order to keep Boise State’s high-scoring offensive on the sideline. They’ll need to contain Jay Ajayi, the Broncos’ 1,600-yard rusher, and minimize long pass plays.

Even that may not be enough. (Let’s not forget this is a 6-6 team.)

The Bulldogs do have a few advantages. They’ve already played on the blue turf — and played well until Boise State pulled away late. They’ve seen Ajayi run and Hedrick throw. They have experience in championship games, something Harsin himself pointed out. And they’ve played well under DeRuyter in cold weather.

Of course, the Broncos have plenty of advantages, too. They also have more to lose besides a conference title.

It might be another 13 years before Fresno State gets a similar opportunity.