Marek Warszawski

Best team in Bulldogs history? This bunch makes its case with Las Vegas Bowl triumph

Before strong Red Wave presence, Fresno State makes history with Las Vegas Bowl win

Fresno State defeats Arizona State 31-20 to win the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl championship. The Bulldogs won their 12th game, the most ever in program history.
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Fresno State defeats Arizona State 31-20 to win the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl championship. The Bulldogs won their 12th game, the most ever in program history.

If any Hollywood producers are looking for the next heart-warming, life-affirming, feel-good story, George Helmuth has a helpful suggestion.

“We need to make a Netflix original,” Fresno State’s senior linebacker and captain said following the Bulldogs’ 31-20 triumph over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

“It’s too good to be true.”

Wipe your eyes and blink, Bulldogs fans. This is no fairy tale. It really happened. You all bore witness, and the 37,146 gathered at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday were on hand for the final curtain call.

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MVP Ronnie Rivers accepts his trophy during a post-game presentation following Fresno State’s victory over Arizona State in the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Just two years ago, many of these same players were members of a 1-11 squad that got its coach fired midway through the season. Many called it the worst team in Fresno State history.

Now, coming off last year’s astonishing 10-4 turnaround, these Bulldogs won the Mountain West title and notched their school-record 12th victory. You’d get some arguments from 1961 (10-0), 1985 (11-0-1) and 1989 (11-1), but there’s a case to be made to call this bunch the best team in Fresno State history.

It’s a comeback story that would make even Lazarus envious.

“Best team in Fresno State history, they can’t take that away from us,” Helmuth said. “After being a part of the worst team in Fresno State history a couple years ago. I’m just extremely thankful and grateful.”

What the Bulldogs did Saturday against an athletic, talented Arizona State squad was more of what we’ve come to expect. While sophomore tailback Ronnie Rivers scampered off with the game’s MVP honors (and deservedly so), there’s no way to overlook a defense that at times made highlight-reel plays and at others refused to budge.

Fresno State tailback Ronnie Rivers talks to the media following the Bulldogs' 31-20 victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 15, 2018, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Tank Kelly’s 70-yard interception return will be the play that gobbles up the most air time on ESPN and views on social media. The senior corner read the mind of Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins, jumped the route and juked defenders with stop-and-go moves en route to the end zone to put Fresno State ahead 10-0.

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Temmate pile on Fresno State’s Tank Kelly after he scored a pick-six interception and touchdown against Arizona State during their game at the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The rest of the first half, however, was controlled by a Sun Devils offense that dominated the time of possession and racked up 230 yards of total offense including 92 on the ground by shifty tailback Eno Benjamin.

With the score tied 17-17 at halftime, it was only natural to wonder if the vaunted Bulldogs defense had met its match against a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team.

Stop wondering. After Fresno State turned over the ball on three consecutive possessions, a near touchdown-turned-touchback and two uncharacteristic interceptions by quarterback Marcus McMaryion, the defense forced four three-and-outs in the third quarter alone.

Even when the Sun Devils took over inside Bulldogs territory following McMaryion’s second pick, they mustered only 13 yards on seven plays before settling for a field goal.

“I think the turning point for me was the two turnovers that we took away,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “We scored three (points). You’ve got to get more points than that against a good team.”

How did Fresno State limit Benjamin to just 26 rushing yards in the second half and the Sun Devils to 63 yards overall? By making the sorts of adjustments that helped the Bulldog this season outscore opponents by a margin of 157-24 in the third quarter.

Defensive coordinator Bert Watts brought safety Mike Bell closer to the line of scrimmage and dared Wilkins to win the game with his arm. He couldn’t. At the same time, there was more emphasis on signaling in the play calls faster and getting lined up quicker.

“I thought we tackled a little better in the second half and were able to limit the explosive plays,” said Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, now 22-6 in his first two seasons.

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Fresno State’s Ronnie Rivers, right, breaks free for a 68-yard touchdown in the second half of the Bulldogs’ 31-20 victory over Arizona State at the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The outcome remained in doubt until Rivers took a handoff from McMaryion at the 32, burst through the line of scrimmage and into the open field before running through arm tackles for a 68-yard touchdown.

Rivers’ run made the score 24-20 with 1 minute left in the third quarter. He later added another score from 5 yards out with 5:19 remaining to finish with a career-high 212.

How will history remember this team? As the one that persevered through brutal lows and went on to unprecedented heights.

“The memories they’re going to take away from this are going to last them a lifetime,” Tedford said. “They’re going to have reunions for many years to come. They can say they did something no one else has done, and it hasn’t come easy.”

The Fresno State Bulldog marching band put on a lively show below the lights of the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas while battling for superiority over the Arizona State University marching band.

What happens next? Certainly, the expectations are raised. Fresno State will no longer catch anyone by surprise. The Bulldogs will be expected to win conference titles and bowl games. The program has a new standard to meet.

At the same time, more people will want to hop on board and be part of this. This is a time for growth, to fertilize and water the soil for the benefit of Bulldogs teams of the future.

I was making that exact point to Terry Tumey down on the field just before the final whistle when Fresno State’s athletic director, still relatively new on the job, glanced down at his cell phone.

“I’ve got a donor calling me right now.”.

Calling to give you money?

“Hoping that’s the case,” Tumey replied with a grin.

Everyone loves a feel-good story. Even more, everyone loves a winner. Twelve wins, to be precise.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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