In 2014 when Fresno State was coming off back-to-back conference championships and the big slide had yet to begin, it had Southern Utah, a championship subdivision program, in town for a game and by the second half it was a blowout.
Aaron Mitchell, a precocious freshman offensive lineman who had been in the two-deep since fall camp, got into the game in the fourth quarter for a few plays. They would be the first and last snaps he would get that season.
At the time he didn’t think much about burning a redshirt season – four other freshman offensive linemen in that recruiting class sat out that year. He just remembers soaring. “I’m on a high,” he said. “I’m a freshman and I got put in, got some playing time. It was cool.”
Those plays cost Mitchell a year of eligibility; he is a senior, but could and probably should be a junior with another year of college football available to him.
But as he prepares for his final game at Bulldog Stadium he has too many reasons to look forward to look backward — Senior Day on Saturday against Boise State, a return matchup against the Broncos for a Mountain West championship in one week and after that, a bowl game.
“I’ve been given a great opportunity to play ever since I’ve been a sophomore and I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Mitchell said. “I could say that I want to get that freshman year back and be a junior this year, but I’m not.
“I’m a senior and I couldn’t ask for a better way to go out. I’ve been blessed with how much I’ve been able to play. I think I’m on 36 starts or something like that, just some crazy number, and I don’t want back any of those days. I love the grind. I love Fresno State. I love this place and I’m looking forward to playing for a championship.”
That the Bulldogs are there after going 3-9 in 2015 and 1-11 last season has a lot to do with Mitchell, who has started every game this season and the past 19 at center after starting the previous 16 at left guard.
“When he goes out there, it’s going fast and there are people running down your throat, he has to be able to make really quick decisions and do it within the framework of the offense, and he does a great job with that,” offensive line coach Ryan Grubb said.
The offensive line, with two more seniors in right tackle David Patterson and backup guard Ryan Popolizio, has been a revelation with the Bulldogs 8-3 and 6-1 with a West Division title in the conference already secured.
A year ago, the Bulldogs were tied for 10th in the Mountain West in tackles for loss allowed with 86.0 and 11th with 7.2 per game. Now they are first with just 36.0 and 3.2 per game.
They were 11th in sacks allowed with 31.0, 2.6 per game. Now they are first with 7.0, 0.6 per game.
This season, working with Grubb, the third position coach for the group in three seasons, rushing yards are up, passing yards are up, scoring is up.
The transition was not without its bumps, but once past spring practices, Mitchell fully engaged, set personal records in the weight room, and was voted a team captain in camp.
“He has really provided a tremendous amount of leadership and I think he’s a guy that has really turned the corner, as far as that is concerned,” coach Jeff Tedford said.
“I’m really proud of him, because when there’s a transition of coaches, there’s trust that has to be earned on both sides. I think Aaron for a while was a little skeptical about things, as a lot of people are, not just him, until they find out what you’re about and what the standards are, what the expectations are. Do you care about them as people? How are you going to things? Aaron is knowledgeable enough to know, to make sure, to inspect those things. He’s a deep thinker and he really turned the corner.”
Back to 2014 and that handful of plays that made up his season, he said simply that things happen for a reason. It’s almost a running joke now in the meeting room. “It’s kind of funny,” Mitchell said. “It has turned into that.”
It also has him on track to end his Fresno State career with a title, which was unfathomable a year ago.
“Me and my pops talk about it all the time,” Mitchell said. “He brought it to my attention. It’s like 12 days of serious football. Everything that I do from today on forward to Saturday and then the following Saturday, we’re playing for a ring.
“It’s really cool that it’s my time to be a senior and I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
BOISE STATE AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 8-3, 6-1 Mountain West; Broncos 9-2, 7-0
- TV/radio: CBSSN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Broncos have won seven in a row after beating Air Force on Saturday 44-19. Over the past four games, they are averaging 46.3 points per game. Brett Rypien has thrown for 12 TDs and just one interception in that stretch. … Boise State has 14 seniors and that group is the 15th in 16 years to win 40 or more career games. With a victory, the Broncos also would go undefeated in conference play for the first time since 2009 when it was in the WAC. … The Broncos last week were No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings, part of the reason they have a large lead on the Bulldogs in determining the host for the Dec. 2 conference final. Even a head-to-head win might not be enough to get Fresno State a home game – the host is determined by teams’ standing in the CFP or composite of four computer rankings.