Marek Warszawski

‘An electric football environment’: New field, lights brighten mood for Bulldogs

The new field looked splendid.

Gotta start with the positive, right?

A fresh layer of Astroturf made its Bulldog Stadium debut Saturday night during Fresno State’s 38-35 loss to Minnesota in double overtime. The green was a noticeably brighter hue, at least compared to the old sun-faded version, and the newly painted yard lines, logos and Purina dog chow checkerboard end zones really popped. The playing surface is also a lot safer, as coach Jeff Tedford pointed out during his glum postgame presser.

Next, the lights. Thanks to new LED bulbs installed in the stadium’s four familiar cantilever towers and four new auxiliary towers erected in the corners of the end zones, everything seemed a whole lot brighter. The place practically glowed.

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The Bulldogs Marching Band sounded terrific, per usual. Members formed the word “Fresno” pregame (just in case anyone forgot where they were) and at halftime played a sprightly rendition of “Freebird” that would’ve made Ronnie Van Zant hum along.

The Red Wave made a pretty solid showing too. An announced crowd of 34,790 turned out and most of them managed to be in their seats at kickoff (as opposed to draining one last drink at the tailgate). Collectively, they made a great deal of noise. Especially when Jared Rice caught a 14-yard pass late in the third quarter and spun into the end zone for Fresno State’s first lead of the evening and the 2019 season.

“At the end, I thought it was an electric football environment,” Tedford said. “Fans, players, everybody was into it. I’m sorry it didn’t turn out the way we wanted to.”

More positives? Tailback Ronnie Rivers had a good night, good enough to make the case he deserves more touches. As did receiver Derrion Grim, linebacker Justin Rice and kicker Cesar Silva.

Oh, and the new press box elevator worked like a charm.

Have you reached your fill of bright-side gazing? Good, because it’s time to pivot. This was a brutal, painful loss for the Bulldogs and Bulldog fans alike, and it’ll be two weeks until either group can vent their frustrations on Sacramento State.

“Hurts,” Tedford said, as succinctly as possible.

These kinds of opportunities (i.e. getting a beatable Big Ten program to fly out to the San Joaquin Valley) don’t often land on the doorstep. Take a peek at Fresno State’s future schedules. It’ll be years before another comes along – if ever.

For the second straight week, the Bulldogs were in position to win late (or at least tie) if quarterback Jorge Reyna had just put a little more oomph into a throw. Instead, Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. dashed in front of a wide open Cam Sutton to snatch the floating football – and victory – from Fresno State’s grasp.

FRS_EPZDOGFOOT_MINNESOTA09
Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers, center, tries to run up the middle against Minnesota Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 in Fresno. Rivers rushed for 76 yards on 15 plays and caught five passes for 48 yards including two touchdowns. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

If you’ll recall, Winfield made a similar play last season at TCF Bank Stadium to hand the Bulldogs one of their two defeats in a 12-2 campaign.

Forget deja vu. This was tre-ja vu.

All of which helps explain why Tedford looked like he’d seen a ghost before storming off the field without doing his customary radio interview. And why no Bulldogs players were made available to the media. (Which is pretty weak, if you ask me. It’s not as if anyone asks tough questions.)

“He’s crushed, obviously,” Tedford said of Reyna. “But it wasn’t one play that decided that game.”

Coach is right about that. Several plays contributed to Fresno State’s misery. Surrendering the tying touchdown with 46 seconds on fourth-and-12, for one. Or, on that same drive, allowing Minnesota to convert third-and-18.

Not to mention guard Netane Muti drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for removing his helmet after the Bulldogs scored a touchdown in the first overtime, which allowed the Gophers to begin their drive at the 13-yard line.

So it’s not fair to only saddle Reyna with blame. There were plenty of gaffes, misfires and brain farts to go around.

That said, the senior needs to clean up his mistakes for the Bulldogs to have any chance of repeating as Mountain West champs. When Reyna gets time to throw, he can really fire the ball into tight spaces. But when pressured, his footwork falters and his accuracy suffers as a result.

Of course, that’s not exactly unique to Reyna. Most inexperienced quarterbacks do the same. And if we’ve learned anything about Fresno State through two pretty tough games against Power Five opponents, it’s that this group is not quite ready for prime time.

The Bulldogs come out on their heels a little overwhelmed, then regain their footing before falling short in the finale. That isn’t a crime. Just growing pains that many teams go through, especially those with first-year starters at key positions.

That might not make anyone with allegiances to Fresno State feel better today, but it’s the unvarnished truth.

But, hey, at least the field looked nice and the lights didn’t go out. Small victories.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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