The game came down to kicker Cesar Silva, who had missed five of his past seven field goal attempts including his first two on Saturday at Hawaii.
The snap, perfect. The placement, perfect. The kick, perfect.
It gave the Fresno State Bulldogs a 41-38 victory over the Rainbow Warriors on Saturday at Aloha Stadium that they had to have to keep alive their chances of a return trip to the Mountain West Conference championship game. It also was their first game-winning field goal with no time remaining since 2009 when Kevin Goessling hit a 35-yarder to beat Louisiana Tech 30-28.
It was, for Silva, as expected.
“It feels great,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I’ve been a kicker, to be honest with you, so it feels really good.”
But it was the third quarter where the Bulldogs put some legitimacy into their championship chase that really hadn’t been there before.
Entering the second half, Fresno State (4-4, 2-2 in the MW) had allowed 309 yards of offense, the most of any first half this season. Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald was 15 of 25 for 189 yards and one touchdown, and the Rainbow Warriors had built a huge time-of-possession advantage, running 44 plays and holding the ball for 19:55 of the first 30 minutes.
The Bulldogs had just 197 yards, a big chunk of it thanks to freshman wideout Jalen Cropper, who threw a 36-yard touchdown pass and scored on a 53-yard run.
They were trying to run the football at Hawaii, which makes sense. The Rainbow Warriors were allowing the most yards per rush in the conference, 5.7 per play. So, on 18 of the first 27 plays, they ran it. That run-pass percentage, 66.7%, was much higher than in any game this season. The top five …
- 61.0% vs. UNLV
- 55.1% at New Mexico State
- 50.6% at USC
- 46.9% vs. Sacramento State
- 44.8% vs. Colorado State
The problem was they just weren’t doing much with those plays – 11 of the 18 went for three yards or fewer – and they lost starting center Matt Smith with a leg injury just before the end of the half.
The top two running backs, Ronnie Rivers and Josh Hokit, had just 21 yards on eight plays and seven yards on three plays, respectively.
They looked much like they did games one through seven this season - struggling to run the ball and unable to extend drives.
And, in the second half with Smith down, they had redshirt freshman Tyrone Sampson at center playing the first extended snaps of his career. Alex Akingbulu, who was making the first start of his career, was at left tackle. Jace Fuamatu, who was making his second career start, was at left guard.
But they made it work.
“The coaches prepare us for these moments,” quarterback Jorge Reyna said. “It’s next man up. We don’t have time to sulk and complain about the situation. We have to get back up, assess the situation and attack what we need to do.”
The defense made a big stop on downs, forced a punt, then a turnover.
The Bulldogs opened that third quarter with a 67-yard drive capped off with Rivers busting a 44-yard touchdown run, only the third time in eight games they produced points on their opening possession of the second half.
Fresno State, down 10 at the half, ended the third quarter up by 31-24 and would add another touchdown its first series in the fourth quarter before the Rainbow Warriors rallied back with a successful onside kick.
The Bulldogs racked up 179 yards of offense in that third quarter - their second-most productive quarter of the season. (They piled up 252 yards in a quarter against UNLV.)
Reyna, who had struggled in the third quarter and in the second half, hit 6 of 10 passes for 90 yards.
The running game produced 89 yards on 11 plays, and they finished with a season-high 290 yards in the ground.
“You have to find a way to win,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “Down the stretch, it was nerve-wracking for sure. It’s a good football team and a close, hard-fought game. To be able to come back in the second half and then turn back around and be able to win it at the end, I’m really proud of Cesar for putting it through the uprights.”
By the numbers
25.8 – Yards per touch for freshman Jalen Cropper, who had 62 yards on three receptions, 61 yards on two rushing plays and 32 yards on one kickoff return. Cropper also threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Zane Pope on the Bulldogs’ first series of the game.
50 – Percent on third downs for the Bulldogs, 6 of 12. Fresno State went in only 10th in the Mountain West on third-down conversion percentage at just 35.3%. The Bulldogs had moved the sticks on just 30 of 85 third-down plays.
555 – Total yards for Hawaii, the most allowed by Fresno State in 36 games under Tedford and the most it has allowed in a victory since beating Boise State 41-40 in 2013 when the Broncos rolled up 561 yards. Kirby Moore, now the Bulldogs’ receivers coach, caught nine passes for 72 yards for the Broncos in that game.
13 – Penalties on Hawaii for 135 yards, seven on the offense and six on the defense including four that resulted in a first down for the Bulldogs. The Rainbow Warriors went in averaging 6.5 penalties per game.
9 – Tackles for freshman safety Evan Williams, who made his first career start. Williams had seven solo tackles and his first interception.
27 – Second half points for the Bulldogs, the fourth game in a row Hawaii has allowed 27 or more points in the second half. The Rainbow Warriors allowed 28 points in losses at Boise State and to Air Force and a victory at New Mexico.
290 – Rushing yards for the Bulldogs, the most against an FBS opponent since they had 309 in a 61-14 victory at Idaho in 2013. They had 389 in a 56-16 victory over FCS Southern Utah in 2014.
14 – Rushing touchdowns for the Bulldogs in their first four Mountain West games - they had one at Air Force, six against UNLV, four against Colorado State and three at Hawaii. They had 15 rushing touchdowns in nine conference games last season, including the Mountain West Conference championship victory at Boise State.
0 – For 3 on fourth-down tries by Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors were leading the Mountain West and tied for fourth in the nation with 14 successful fourth-down plays.