Jaron Bryant saw the ball pop into the air and knew he had to come down with it.
Fresno State’s junior cornerback did a lot more than that, returning a pass tipped by teammate Robert Stanley 44 yards for the clinching touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 33-27 victory over Houston in Sunday’s Hawaii Bowl.
Bryant’s fourth interception of the season – and second pick six – turned out to be the key play that allowed Fresno State to end its six-game bowl skid.
The play came with 3:49 remaining in the game and the Bulldogs clinging to a 26-20 lead after they had to settle for a field goal following a rare unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on coach Jeff Tedford.
“I saw Rob tip the ball and was like, ‘Go get it before the offensive player gets it,’ ” Bryant said. “So I went up, got it, and the next thing I know I see green daylight in front of me so I just took off running. Sure enough I scored.”
Defensive tackle Malik Forrester had a good view of Bryant’s interception. What was the senior team captain thinking as he saw Bryant race toward the end zone?
“I was like, ‘Meet him at the crib, homeboy! Meet him at the crib,’ ” Forrester said. “Me and (linebacker) George (Helmuth) sandwiched some dude on the way there.”
Both teams brought their bucket of gadget plays to Hawaii.
Fresno State tried a flea-flicker on its first drive. Marcus McMaryion threw deep downfield into double coverage that resulted in an incompletion.
Houston had much better success with its flea-flicker. Receiver Steven Dunbar got behind the Bulldogs’ secondary to haul in a 50-yard pass from D’Eriq King. On the next play, All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver powered into the end zone from the 1 on his first career carry.
The tricks didn’t stop there. Bulldogs running back Josh Hokit threw incomplete on an option pass – after the Clovis High product was 2 for 2 with two touchdown passes coming in.
Later in the half, receiver KeeSean Johnson looked like he wanted to throw downfield but was tackled out of bounds, only for Houston to get called for a facemask.
Fresno State cornerback Tank Kelly injured his left elbow in the first half and went to the locker room for X-rays. He did not return.
It was a big loss. On a previous possession, Kelly broke up a pass on fourth down that would’ve moved the chains if completed.
The Bulldogs felt Kelly’s absence. After the junior’s exit, Houston went after backup Sherman Coleman Jr.
Farewell to 15
Sunday was the final college game for 15 Bulldogs seniors. They are: Da’Mari Scott, Johnny Johnson, Jackson Finch, Austin Harper, Robert Stanley, Jimmy Camacho, Justin Green, Stephen Van Hook, Kody Kroening, Tobenna Okeke, Ryan Popolizio, Aaron Mitchell, David Patterson, Nathan Madsen (injured) and Forrester.
The Bulldogs are losing three starters off their defensive line (Forrester, Okeke and Stanley), two on the offensive line (Mitchell and Patterson) and both kickers (Camacho and Kroening).
Before the game, Mitchell, one of two permanent captains along with Forrester, took to Twitter to tell his followers what the last four years meant to him.
“Today is the last time I’ll be playing football for the ’Dogs,” Mitchell wrote. “It’s been a long chapter of my life and it’s coming to an end. Couldn’t ask for a better place or a better team to play with.”
There aren’t any Alabamas or Washingtons on the Bulldogs’ 2018 nonconference schedule. Fresno State will play UCLA and Minnesota on the road and Toledo and Idaho at home.
In Mountain West play, the Bulldogs will face San Diego State, San Jose State, Hawaii and Wyoming at home and Nevada, UNLV, Boise State and New Mexico on the road.
After this year’s turnaround, don’t expect an all-Saturday schedule, either. Fresno State will almost surely play at least one Friday night game.
▪ The Bulldogs got a scare in the second half when Mitchell left the game with an apparent injury, but the team captain returned after missing a series. How injured was Mitchell? “I wasn’t injured at all,” he said with a smile. “Just needed a little break, a little tired. Just had to get some water on the sideline.”
▪ With four field goals, Camacho eclipsed both the school’s single-season record and the Hawaii Bowl record. Camacho finished the year 24 of 31 on field goals. Asen Asparuhov had 23 field goals in 2001 and again in ’02.
▪ Johnson became the first Bulldogs receiver to reach 1,000 yards since Josh Harper in 2014 and the 15th 1,000-yard receiver in program history. Johnson had eight receptions for 95 yards, giving him 1,013 on the year.
▪ Oliver stepped on a sea urchin in the days leading up to the game, ESPN reported. The injury didn’t prevent Oliver from scoring his first career touchdown. Otherwise, the Bulldogs front five limited the Outland Trophy winner to four total tackles, two for losses.
▪ The paid attendance of 20,546 was the smallest in Hawaii Bowl history. The actual turnstile count was announced at 12,187.