The play will be debated: Fresno State called a halfback pass on first-and-goal with the game on the line and less than 90 seconds remaining.
But the play, or at least something similar to it, had worked before. Twice last season for touchdowns.
Bottom line, it was there again Saturday.
But it didn’t work, and Fresno State fell 21-14 at Minnesota.
Why did it fail?
Blame it on execution, which can’t be much of a surprise given the way the first 58-plus minutes and 57 offensive plays in an excruciating loss for the Bulldogs had transpired.
Down seven, the Bulldogs made their way 71 yards to the Golden Gophers’ 4-yard line.
Minnesota called timeout, trying to stop the momentum with 1:24 remaining.
Fresno State decided to dial up a halfback pass – Josh Hokit to tight end Jared Rice in the back of the end zone.
Hokit had time to get the ball away. Rice was open.
But the ball was under-thrown. It floated a bit too much.
And those fractions of a second gave Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. just enough time to spin back toward Rice and into the play.
Winfield got to the ball first, leaping and stretching to make the pick, and holding onto the ball as he crashed to the turf to secure the interception.
“They were playing very aggressive in the secondary coming up,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “We were open, and it was just unfortunate that the ball was a little bit under-thrown. We got what we wanted – the aggressive play from the secondary to come up. Unfortunately, it was just a little under-thrown.”
Winfield: “I saw the running back get the ball and then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tight end release and that’s my man so I have to go make this play. I saw the ball come over and I just went high up under the ball.”
Winfield’s interception with 1:18 remaining was the latest dagger to the Bulldogs’ struggles against Power Five conference programs, particularly on the road.
The Bulldogs had lost their past nine against Power Five teams, by an average of 33.4 points.
This time, they slugged it out for four quarters even if the Bulldogs weren’t nearly at their best.
The Bulldogs were held scoreless in the first half Saturday for the first time since a loss to Colorado State in 2016 during a 1-11 season.
Quarterback Marcus McMaryion struggled for three quarters, missing opportunities to make plays – they had just 168 yards of offense and seven first downs at that point, averaging just 3.8 yards per play.
The defense in that third quarter gave the opportunities, forcing punts that set them up at the Minnesota 44, the Fresno State 42, the Bulldogs 38.
The Bulldogs’ first touchdown came on a 17-yard drive with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter, after cornerback Tank Kelly forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Patrick Belony.
The second came on an improbable 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter that included a 22-yard run by Jordan Mims on a third-and-2 play and was capped with a 45-yard touchdown pass from McMaryion to KeeSean Johnson, who caught at least one pass for a 38th consecutive game, the longest active streak in the nation.
But add it all together and the Bulldogs didn’t have enough.
After the score by Johnson gave the Bulldogs a 14-13 lead, Minnesota answered with a 74-yard touchdown drive and 2-point conversion pass. The drive was aided by a wild 13-yard gain on third-and-9, a pass play that started with freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad scrambling away from pressure and ended with Tyler Johnson making a catch against the sideline and in front of two Fresno State defensive backs.
The Bulldogs also were penalized 15 yards for sideline interference on the play, setting up the Golden Gophers at the Bulldogs 28-yard line.
“Just missed opportunities,” McMaryion said. “On my part, I think I left a lot on the field that I could have taken advantage of a bit more just being more true to my progressions and kind of staying within myself and the offense.”
It could be a costly loss.
The Bulldogs lost left guard Netane Muti, wideout Michiah Quick and cornerback Jaron Bryant with injuries during the game.
None were able to return and their status remains to be determined.
The Bulldogs’ chances of reaching a New Year’s Six bowl, even if Fresno State can win the Mountain West, remain in question, too.
A win at Minnesota would have set them up well.
But Fresno State does have another shot at a Power Five win, on Saturday at UCLA (0-2).
“It’s real tough to lose a close game like that but we have to try and put that behind us and get ready for next week,” said linebacker Jeff Allison, who had a career-high 15 tackles including five solo stops and one tackle for loss.