Fresno State offensive lineman Alex Fifita looks back at his first time playing in Hawaii and laughs it off now.
So does Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter, which seems to help Fifita shrug off his troublesome showing from the 2012 Hawaii Bowl.
“Hey Alex, I checked,” DeRuyter joked with the Bulldogs left tackle this week as Fresno State prepared to face Rice in the Hawaii Bowl on Wednesday, “I don’t think they have any Estonians on their roster.”
Fifita and DeRuyter chuckle together, though it wasn’t so funny for Fresno State two years ago.
Then a true freshman and lined up across from a future NFL player in Southern Methodist defensive end Margus Hunt, Fifita caved to the challenge and got abusedover and over again by the 6-foot-8 Estonian. Hunt piled up three tackles for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a safety en route to earning MVP honors and leading SMU to a 43-10 victory against Fresno State. A few months later, Hunt was taken in the second round of the NFL draft.
Rather than feel nervous about playing in the Hawaii Bowl again, Fifita expressed excitement in returning to the same stage. An all-Mountain West honorable mention selection this season, Fifita is part of an offensive line that helped Fresno State rank 43rd in the nation in rushing yards per game (183.9) and 54th in total offense (417.7).
“Looking back at my first bowl, of course there are flashbacks, seeing and thinking about what I could’ve done, what I didn’t do,” Fifita said. “Not to make excuses, but it was my first year starting and I just didn’t have the experience and understanding of the game like I have now. And I was going against a second-round NFL prospect.
“I feel I’ve learned from that bowl and grown a lot. It really got me to open my eyes and showed me how much I needed to improve and that I could be better. I’d love to have another chance against (Hunt).”
Hunt is in his second season in the NFL, in a reserve role with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The 6-foot-4, 303-pound Fifita, though, still could be matched against an All-Conference USA selection.
Owls 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end Brian Nordstrom led Conference USA with 18 1/2 tackles, and made 7 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble to earn C-USA first-team honors. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Zach Patt, Rice’s other defensive end, was a C-USA honorable mention after registering a team-high 8 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles despite missing three games.
“We’re going back to the same bowl, playing on the same date, same stadium,” Bulldogs offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said. “But that’s not SMU we’re facing this year. And more importantly, Alex is a different guy.
“Anytime you got a guy who’s a competitor, he should be driven by that — but not consumed by it. If you’re consumed by it, it’s going to repeat itself. You learn from your mistakes and move on, especially playing tackle. It’s a position you’ve got to have a short memory. Alex has gotten better at that. He’s gotten better at a lot of things.”
Fresno State’s pass protection and Bulldogs quarterback Brian Burrell’s ability to get rid of the ball on time could be key against a Rice defense that’s one of the nation’s top teams in sacks.
The Bulldogs struggled all year giving up sacks and surrendered an average of 2.77 a game (36 total) to rank No. 103. The Owls defense, which has faced many spread offenses this season, is tied for 18th in the nation in generating sacks at a clip of 2.92 per game (35 total).
“That’s a team that’s extremely sound,” DeRuyter said of the Owls defense. “They know they’ve got a really good package (against the spread) and (are) very sound in how to defend it.”
Despite the Bulldogs’ struggles with allowing sacks, the offensive line has remained one of Fresno State’s more reliable groups. The Bulldogs have started the same five offensive linemen at the same positions all season for the first time in at least 25 years with Fifita at left tackle, Sean Rubalcava at left guard, Bo Bonnheim at center, Cody Wichmann at right guard and Justin Northern at right tackle.
Fifita, who started his career at left tackle then moved to left guard last season before returning to left tackle this season, takes pride in protecting his quarterback’s blind side.
“He’s definitely one of our best offensive linemen,” Bonnheim said. “He’s a big guy, played guard last year and that wasn’t really his spot. But he’s really blossomed at tackle. He knows what he’s doing and can cover a lot of ground.”
Fifita, who is of Tui Tonga descent and has family in Hawaii, remains eager to show a national television audience how much he’s improved since 2012 and is further motivated by playing before roughly 25 relatives who’ll attend the game.
“I know I can go into the game with more confidence, with more of a swagger and play the game instead of hesitating so much,” Fifita said. “This is a great opportunity for us to make new memories.”