Fresno State ran 64 plays before its last one, the one that clinched the Mountain West Conference football championship with a 19-16 overtime victory over Boise State.
There were some big ones, sprinkled among the snowflakes the fell through much of the game.
Asa Fuller, who had hit only two of his past five field goal attempts, hit two through a snowstorm, from 44 and 38 yards. Matt Boateng, a senior who had played mostly on special teams and had one tackle all season, blocked a point-after try after the Broncos had scored with 8:01 remaining and were a kick away from taking a lead.
The Bulldogs defense was extra large all game, on the field for 86 plays against one of the top offenses in the conference, and allowing just 4.1 yards per play. That was Mykal Walker, who was selected the defensive player of the game, with 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. That was Jeff Allison, George Helmuth, James Bailey, Mike Bell, Juju Hughes, Tank Kelly, Keiti Iakopo, Patrick Belony.
The offense has produced a few, too, slogging through a snow- and ice-covered field through the second half and into overtime. In that second half, after taking a 13-7 lead, they went three-and-out on three series in a row and four in five, but kept swinging.
Then, in the overtime, after the Bulldogs defense held Boise State to a field goal, there was a big 16-yard pass play to tight end Jared Rice, followed by a run by Ronnie Rivers to the Boise State 1. The Broncos stuffed a second-and-goal play from there, and after the Bulldogs lined up for third-and-goal from the 1, Boise State called a timeout.
That set up the big one.
“We had two calls that I liked and the first one is the one we lined up in, and then they called a timeout,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said.
“The one we scored on, we had run the same formation on second down and I was really just looking for one particular defender to see if it was going to be there and it looked pretty good. I wanted to give our guys a chance to get out in space and make a play.”
It was an option play and it worked as well as any had all night: quarterback Marcus McMaryion making a quick pitch to running back Ronnie Rivers, who got a key block from Rice on the edge and went into the end zone untouched.
“I knew we could get everyone blocked up,” DeBoer said. “That was the big thing. I knew we could get a body on every single defender on the outside. They were all crammed in down inside on the 1. It was a perfect set-up for that play.”
It also was the perfect ending for the Bulldogs, who are headed to the Las Vegas Bowl as the Mountain West champion to play Herman Edwards-led Arizona State of the Pac-12.
After Rivers crossed the goal line, the Bulldogs raced off the sideline celebrating their first conference title since 2013, their first victory at Boise State since 1984.
“All game long, we just knew our offense would have our back,” Walker said. “As soon as Ronnie crossed that line, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Just two seasons ago, many of these Bulldogs had struggled through a 1-11 season.
McMaryion, the former Dinuba star, signed on after that. But after transferring in from Oregon State during fall camp a year ago, he got much more than he ever expected.
“It’s honestly just surreal,” he said. “I don’t think it has sunk in, just everything that I’ve done in the past two years with Coach Tedford and the program. I’m just thankful and blessed to be in the position I am. Like (Walker) said, just hats off to all those guys in the locker room who are going crazy. They deserve it and everything beyond that. I’m just excited to be able to bring this one back home to Fresno.”
Slippery lead on blue
The Bulldogs had a tenuous lead, but always the outcome was in doubt.
Fresno State went into the conference title game 18-2 under Tedford when going into the fourth quarter with a lead, the losses to the Broncos in the Mountain West title game last season and a game at Albertsons Stadium three weeks back.
They held a lead again, up 13-7. The Broncos kept pounding away on the ground, rushing Alexander Mattsion at the Bulldogs defense.
“I was really proud of our kids tonight,” Tedford said. “They never gave in and at the end found a way to win. Hard, tough conditions, noisy stadium, hostile environment, the whole bit. But our players were not going to be denied.”
Fresno State had held Mattison to 59 yards on 16 plays, 3.7 per play in the first half, but he finished with 200 on 40 plays. On the series after Fuller extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 13-7, Mattison carried the ball on eight of nine plays, leading to a missed field goal. He also scored one touchdown, a 34-yard run that pulled the Broncos even with 8:01 to go, with a chance to go ahead.
“We knew the weather was a part of it in that decision to pound the rock,” Mattison said. “Things were working out for us up front; guys were getting some movement, so we decided to rely on the run game and at the end of the day we just didn’t get the job done.”
Boateng had a lot to do with that, racing off the edge to get a piece of the PAT try.
“It came down to effort, coming off the edge and timing it right” Tedford said. “Sometimes the operation time in those kind of conditions are a little bit slower, just because the holder has to be sure about the catch and the placement and the kicker may be a little bit slower. But it was just a great effort by Boateng to come off that edge.
“He timed it up perfectly and the block point was perfect – even sometimes you get there, if the block point is not right you miss it.”
Broncos kicker Haden Hoggarth was 56 of 56 on PATs before Boateng got to him, but only 13 of 18 kicking field goals.
“Not to take any credit from Fresno but we’ve got to be able to make those plays,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That’s what it’s come down to. We’ve got to be able to make those kicks in those situations.”
The Broncos didn’t, though. The Bulldogs, who had struggled to make plays in those last two losses to Boise State, this time did.
It was a big win for a program that has 21 wins in the past two seasons with a bowl game to come later this month. Was it the biggest, for Tedford?
“It’s a big win, no doubt about it,” Tedford said. “I’m kind of old so I’ve been a part of a lot of competitions, but I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a team than this team, the resilience that they’ve shown and the work that they come and put in every single day, the togetherness they have as a family. Tonight was a hard-fought game. You’re going through everything. You’re going through rain. You’re going through snow, hostile environment, ups and downs, back and forth. The effort, you take Asa Fuller kicking two field goals in the snow, Boateng coming off the edge to block an extra point that allowed us to go into overtime. A lot of great effort out there ...
“These players, to see how excited they are in there, there’s nothing like that. That’s why we do this. That’s why we put in the time and the energy, to see them be rewarded like this, there’s nothing better than that.”