The Fresno State Bulldogs will go into the Mountain West Conference championship game at Boise State reeling, not rolling, after far too much of a 28-point lead on Hawaii got away in the fourth quarter of a victory that clinched a Western Division title.
But that pretty much falls right in line for this team, which started the season absorbing blowout losses at USC, at Utah and to Nebraska by a combined 166 to 59. They recovered to win three in a row, then lost their next three including games at UNLV and to Wyoming, which went 2-11 and 4-8 and were a combined 0-9 after beating the Bulldogs. They then finished with three consecutive victories to get to 6-6 in a way that no Mountain West team ever had; three down, three up, three down, three up.
They have embraced that zaniness and are comfortable there.
And they are not backing away from it, or an opportunity to win a third consecutive conference championship against a program they have beaten just once in their past nine tries and on a field where they have won only once and not since 1984.
“I think our guys have embraced the fact that we have a lot of warts and we’re not perfect, but on any given day we can compete with the best in this conference and at least have a puncher’s chance of going out and winning the thing and our guys like that,” DeRuyter said.
“This is the story we’ve been writing all year long. The first 0-3, we took enough of a blow. The second three-game losing streak, when everyone was saying we were done, our guys responded after that. It takes something special to get knocked down twice during a season as badly as we got knocked down to then get back up and continue competing. That’s why this senior group is one you’ll always remember and the story is not done yet. We still have one more chapter that we can make even better if we can find a way to put it all together on Saturday night. Let’s see if this roll can go on for one more week.”
That wouldn’t be the weirdest thing for the Bulldogs, who went into the fourth quarter at Boise State on Oct. 17 with the score tied at 27 before the offense stalled and the Broncos took a 37-27 decision.
Fresno State has played much sounder on defense since making some lineup changes in its secondary leading into in its three-game winning streak, allowing a more reasonable 380.7 yards and 21.7 points per game in victories over San Jose State, at Nevada and over Hawaii. The Bulldogs also have forced nine turnovers in those three games — they had 11 in the first nine games.
The fourth quarter against Hawaii, when a 28-0 lead turned into a 28-21 final and the Bulldogs’ offense generated only 74 total yards on 21 plays, could give way to some doubt. But at this point of the season, that is just part of the overall equation to getting to the championship game.
“I’m sure there’s doubt any time you go out and compete, whether it’s against UNLV or Hawaii or going against Boise,” DeRuyter said. “We know we’re a team that’s good enough, if we’re executing, we can beat any play with anybody in this league and we can also play poorly enough that we can lose to everybody in this league.
“But the bottom line is it’s up to us. We have to have a great week of practice. We have to execute. And if we don’t execute for whatever reason we have to be able to bounce back from that adversity, forget it and drive on and that’s going to be the key, because they’re going to make some plays. Can we respond when they make their plays? We did for the most part the first time we played up there.”
Some cleanup to do
Bulldogs’ quarterback Brian Burrell threw two second-half interceptions in the victory over Hawaii, cutting short drives that lasted one play and two plays.
Both came on plays where the execution was lacking, and can easily be cleaned up.
“Two different things going on,” DeRuyter said. “On one, Brian throws into an eight-man drop coverage. He’s been taught and he knows what to do when we get those things. We just have to execute that. And then on the shovel pass, Marteze (Waller) has got to look for the football. He doesn’t and the play gets strung out and so he throws it late. Just bad execution. We have to get better.”
Those are fighting words
DeRuyter and his staff have used boxing as a reference a lot this season, three weeks ago before they played at Nevada showing the Bulldogs clips of an Arturo Gatti fight.
“You talk about a brutal fight,” he said. “They’re beating each other up, get knocked down and get back up. We said, ‘Hey, look, this guy would not give in.’ That’s kind of how our team has been.
“We’ve had the stuffing kicked out of us at times, but we haven’t thrown in the towel and if you keep competing then who knows what will happen?”
Ajayi leads way for Boise
Boise State running back Jay Ajayi rushed for 229 yards and five touchdowns on 27 plays in the Broncos’ 50-19 victory over Utah State late Saturday night, which clinched the Mountain Division title.
Ajayi has rushed for 100 or more yards in seven consecutive games and nine this season. He rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting with the Bulldogs, who had limited the redshirt junior to a total of 145 yards and one touchdown in 35 plays in the 2013 and ’12 games.
Broncos are heating up
Boise State is averaging 53.2 points in the five games it has played since beating Fresno State on Oct. 17. The Broncos have beaten Brigham Young (55-30), New Mexico (60-49), San Diego State (38-29), Wyoming (63-14) and Utah State (50-19).
San Diego State (15th, 20.1 ppg) and Utah State (23rd, 20.8 ppg) are Top 25 teams in the nation in scoring defense, but Brigham Young is 56th (25.3), Wyoming is 102nd (32.8) and New Mexico 112th (35.9).