A photograph circulated this week on social media, one I’ve spent quite a bit of time staring at.
The photo, taken in 2008 during Fresno State’s last road game against UCLA, depicts several Bulldogs running downfield on kickoff coverage. Except it’s not the foreground action that stands out.
Shot from field level, the photo shows the opposite end zone of the Rose Bowl, college football’s most historic and superb venue. Just about every seat is occupied by a Bulldogs fan wearing red. To count the number of blue shirts, I barely need two hands.
“Where will you be Saturday, #RedWave?” asks the official Fresno State football Twitter account.
This is not the start of another “Where Have All the Bulldogs Fans Gone?” column. Goodness knows, I’ve written plenty of those.
Rather, my purpose is to point out how big an opportunity this is to make an impression in a region of the state that usually forgets about our existence. That is, unless the Bulldogs are playing one of the Southern California Pac-12 schools.
Fresno State’s 24-7 victory over USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, played down the freeway in Anaheim, remains a watershed. Not because the Trojans were a better team and had more talent – they weren’t and didn’t – but because more than 20,000 Bulldogs fans turned out to witness the program’s first triumph over a blue-blood opponent.
Same goes for the most talked about Fresno State football game of the 21st century, the 50-42 loss to top-ranked USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2005. The Bulldogs got so much buzz from that game that it’s easy to forget they didn’t win.
Even though the series against UCLA lacks the same historical gravitas, it’s still supremely important. In fact, I’d argue this game means more to casual Bulldogs fans than any contest remaining on the schedule.
Boise State? Perhaps. The Broncos are the Mountain West team everyone loves to hate (and beat). San Diego State? Absolutely not, and all you need to do is look at last season when Fresno State thrashed the Aztecs 27-3 on the road, then came home the following week to a smaller crowd than the week before.
Difficult to believe, but those are the facts.
Bragging rights against the USCs and UCLAs simply mean more to the average Bulldogs fan, and these kinds of chances don’t come often. Fresno State may never get a better opportunity to defeat the Bruins, who are 0-2 in Chip Kelly’s first season.
The Las Vegas oddsmakers and bettors must think so, as well. The Bulldogs opened as 1-point favorites, then became 1-point underdogs before swinging back to 2½-point favorites as of Thursday afternoon.
I realize Fresno State didn’t look like world-beaters, or even middle-of-the-pack-Big Ten beaters, last week against Minnesota. The disappointment felt by Bulldogs fans when that halfback option pass floated into the wrong hands still lingers.
But from what I’ve observed this week, the players and coaches have let it go. Now it’s up to fans to do the same.
“You have to move on,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said, “or else Minnesota is going to beat us twice.”
It’s up to the players and coaches to not let that happen, but fans have a role to play too.
I also realize that drive, 450 miles round trip from Bulldog Stadium to the Rose Bowl, isn’t easy. And since kickoff isn’t until 7:30 p.m., that means anyone from the Valley who chooses not to stay overnight won’t be returning home until the wee hours.
It’s so much easier, and less expensive, to stay home, pop a cold one and watch the game on TV.
If enough Bulldogs fans opt for that route Saturday, the end zone won’t be filled with red shirts making noise for their team. It’ll be sparse and quiet. And if someone takes a similar photograph, the sea of red last seen in 2008 will be more like a puddle.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Maybe you don’t care that much. But ask anyone who spent a few minutes this week enlarging that photo, looking for themselves, friends and family members who witnessed that 36-31 Fresno State victory.
I’ll wager it’s a cherished memory.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee