Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Fresno State loss to Boise State confirms everyone's suspicions

So much for payback.

Fresno State arrived at the Mountain West Conference championship game intent on proving everyone wrong.

Instead, the Bulldogs confirmed everyone's suspicions.

Fresno State played Saturday night like it had no business being on the same field as No. 22 Boise State, and it wouldn't have mattered if the Albertsons Stadium turf was blue, green or fuchsia.

Like a house cat pawing a mouse, the Broncos toyed with the Bulldogs most of the game. And although the final score of 28-14 wasn't nearly as lopsided as some losses this season, the outcome was never in doubt.

The Broncos are outright MW champions, halting Fresno State's two-year run. To the Bulldogs' credit, they kept playing hard and kept the score relatively close. But there are no trophies or on-field celebrations for moral victories.

"Losing sucks," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "It hurts. We came into the game expecting to win, and I thought we competed like it."

Fresno State needed a big game from Marteze Waller, and the Broncos knew that. They focused their defense on stopping the junior tailback and held him to just 23 yards on 15 attempts. Waller didn't play at all in the second half after re-injuring his shoulder.

Brian Burrell had a decent night -- if you take away his three interceptions. Most of all the one that linebacker Tanner Vallejo returned for a 63-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

Afterward, Burrell blamed himself for calling the wrong protection.

"I feel bad for our seniors," said Burrell, who passed for 332 yards. "I wish I could've given them a better game."

Fresno State had few chances and failed to take advantage of them.

With the Bulldogs trailing 14-0, Josh Harper got wide open deep downfield against a busted coverage. He made the catch and had nothing but blue turf between him and the end zone.

Instead, Harper cut across the field and was tackled at the 13-yard line. The drive stalled, and Kody Kroening's field goal attempt was blocked.

Malcolm Washington had a chance to make a key interception. Instead, he knocked down the ball. So did Curtis Riley, only he couldn't hang on to it.

The Bulldogs made things interesting in the fourth quarter, pulling to within 14 points and recovering an onside kick. That's as close as they would get.

By the time it was over, the only happy Fresno State fans were those who took the points.

So what happens now?

Even at 6-7, the Bulldogs are headed to a bowl -- a perk of winning their division. All the bowl pairings will be announced Sunday afternoon.

In most years, Fresno State would angle to play a team from a Power 5 conference. This year, that would be exceedingly dumb. We've already seen that result. The Bulldogs need to play a team they have a chance to beat.

While a trip to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego would be ideal for fans, the Bulldogs won't get an invitation. Not with a losing record and 7-5 hometown San Diego State ready and willing.

In all likelihood, the Bulldogs will end up back in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 against a Conference USA opponent or the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 20 against one from the Sun Belt.

Don't groan. This is what a team with seven losses deserves.

Alabama-Birmingham would love to be in the Bulldogs' position. The Blazers dropped football this week after finishing bowl-eligible at 6-6. But they won't qualify for a C-USA bowl and are unlikely to garner an at-large selection -- despite the potential human interest story.

Now that's a team with a serious gripe.

The MW's early bowl games (all six are before Christmas) make life difficult on coaches, who must balance game preparation with recruiting. Recruiting has to be the priority. The program's long-term future is more important that the outcome of any single game.

However, this team really needs a bowl win -- and not just because the Bulldogs haven't won one since 2007 and are 0-5 since. Both bowl losses under DeRuyter have been particularly lopsided.

To outside observers, the difference between 6-8 and 7-7 may seem miniscule. Not in Fresno State's case.

"It's huge," DeRuyter said. "That last game is big. It gives you momentum going into next season and gives your seniors the right memory going forward."

If the Bulldogs finish .500 by winning their final game, it'll be easy to feel good about what they accomplished. In a season packed with whoop-de-dos, the prevailing themes will be perseverance and finishing strong.

If the Bulldogs lose their bowl, especially to a fellow Group of Five school, only the most red pom-pom waving fans will remember the November resurgence. Even that will soon fade.

Fresno State is fortunate to have one more chance to put a positive spin on what's been a tumultuous season. But only with a bowl victory. Lose, and 6-8 becomes the final arbiter.