Excuse Josh Harper if he’s exponentially excited about playing in the Hawaii Bowl.
Though the Fresno State receiver is a fifth-year senior and the Bulldogs have played in three other bowls already during his career, the Hawaii Bowl will mark the first and only time Harper will get to play in the postseason as a Bulldog.
“It’s great,” Harper said Thursday after Fresno State (6-7) conducted its first practice in preparation for Rice (7-5) for the Dec. 24 game from the island of Oahu. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but this will be my first bowl game that I ever play in. It feels great to be able to play in a bowl for the first time.
“They’ve all been through it and stuff. Even the younger (teammates) have been through it. This’ll be my first one. It’s crazy.”
Harper, a first-team All-Mountain West selection, is the third player in Fresno State history with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons after hauling 86 catches for 1,072 yards (82.5 per-game average) and seven touchdowns this season.
But injuries kept him from suiting up in Fresno State’s past two bowls under coach Tim DeRuyter, against USC in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl and against Southern Methodist in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl. The Bulldogs didn’t make a bowl in 2011 in former coach Pat Hill’s final season and Harper was a redshirting freshman when Fresno State faced Northern Illinois in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl.
The Bulldogs failed to win any of those bowls. In fact, Fresno State has lost five in a row since defeating Georgia Tech in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.
Harper, though, pointed out that he has yet to lose in the postseason.
“I’m 0-0,” he joked. “No, it’s a team effort. I was on the sideline with them (in previous bowl losses).
“I can’t wait. I’m excited. … We have to get that losing streak off the Fresno State name. I feel it’s upon us to take care of that.”
Fresno State is the only team with a losing record in a bowl this year, having locked up a berth by winning a Mountain West divisional title and reaching the six-win bowl requirement by the end of the regular season.
Previous teams to have losing records entering a bowl were the 2011 UCLA team, which lost to Illinois in the Kraft Hunger Bowl to finish 6-8, and the 2012 Georgia Tech team, which defeated USC in the Sun Bowl to finish 7-7.
Six teams that were bowl-eligible and sported a better record than the Bulldogs were left out of this postseason: Temple (6-6), Middle Tennessee (6-6), Alabama-Birmingham (6-6, then shut down the program after the regular season), Old Dominion (6-6), Ohio (6-6) and Texas State (7-5). Georgia Southern (9-3) and Appalachian State (7-5), which finished as the top two teams in the Sun Belt Conference, were not eligible for the postseason since it’s their first season as FBS members.
“Everybody has their opinions,” Fresno State safety Derron Smith said. “But you know, as a team, we’re definitely excited to play one last day together and relax a few days in Hawaii with each other, too.
“The only bad thing is the date that it’s on — it’s on Christmas Eve. Other than the date of the bowl, we always have a lot of fun. … We’re definitely trying to go out with a win.”
Fresno State already has made history simply by reaching a bowl, becoming the school’s first team to start 0-3 and reach the postseason. Rice also lost its first three games this season. The Owls, though have started even worse and still qualified for a bowl, opening 2006 with four straight losses before landing in the New Orleans Bowl.
In all, since 1980 only 21 teams have reached a bowl after starting 0-3.
“The fact that we’ve got a bowl game is a blessing,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “These guys will have the rest of their lives to not have bowl games to go to.”
Fresno State, making its 26th bowl appearance, will face Rice for the first time since 2004 when both were in the Western Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs are 6-0 all-time against the Owls.
Fresno State has reached a bowl in each season under DeRuyter, though he noted “just getting there, getting a participation ribbon, that’s not good enough.”
Tthe Bulldogs have suffered their two biggest bowl defeats (based on margin of victory) the past two seasons, first losing to SMU 43-10 in the Hawaii Bowl then falling to USC 45-20 in the Vegas Bowl.
“Our guys need to go out there and win a bowl game,” DeRuyter said. “You always remember that last game of your college career.
“Even though we did some great things those first two years, losing that last one, you just had that terrible feeling in your gut. We can change that with a win out in Hawaii.”