Before strong Red Wave presence, Fresno State makes history with Las Vegas Bowl win
Celebrating in Vegas
Live it up, Fresno State.
There’s never been a bigger reason for the Bulldogs to celebrate.
The 2018 Bulldogs became the first team in the program’s 97 years to win 12 games in a season, achieving history Saturday with a 31-20 win against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.
And what a place to party.
In Sin City, where at least in this case, what happened in Vegas will be forever remembered back in Fresno.
How Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford returned to his alma mater two years ago and transformed a Fresno State team that won just one game to arguably the most celebrated team in program history as the 2018 Bulldogs finished 12-2 overall and Mountain West champs.
“They’re a history-making team,” Tedford said on national TV.
Fresno overcame three straight turnovers to start the second half thanks to its stifling defense that surrendered just 3 points after halftime.
Marcus McMaryion had an uncharacteristic outing, completing just 15 of 29 passes for 176 yards, no touchdowns. He even threw two interceptions after getting picked off just three times in the first 11 games.
But down the stretch, McMaryion once again played smart.
A lot of handoffs to running back Ronnie Rivers and a few scampers of his own.
Rivers finished with 24 carries for a game-high 212 yards and two touchdowns. McMaryion added 41 rushing yards and a touchdown on four carries.
And that vaunted Bulldogs defense that was allowing just 13 points a game entering Saturday?
Sure, the unit surrendered 17 points in the first half, which seemed like a concerning development going into the break.
But the Bulldogs defense would not be rattled by any miscues the Fresno State offense made, allowing just 21 total yards and 3 points during a critical third quarter in which the offense committed a fumble at the goal line and had two interceptions.
And while the Bulldogs second half performance was filled with assignment-sound play and big hits, the unit’s highlight came during the first quarter.
That’s when Fresno State defensive back Tank Kelly picked off a Manny Wilkins and ran it back 70 yards for a touchdown. He had to stop and start twice and made a few jukes to avoid would-be tacklers in a play that could end up on ESPN Sports Center Top 10 Plays of the Day.
The win ensures Fresno State will finish in the season ranked for the first time since 2004 when the Bulldogs ended up No. 18. These Bulldogs entered Saturday ranked No. 21 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and No. 19 in the Associated Press poll.
Along the way, Fresno State defeated rival Boise State 19-16 on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium two weeks ago, which might still remain the top feat from the season.
The Bulldogs also won at the Vegas Bowl for the first time after losing during their first two tries back in 2013 and 1999.
That 2013 Fresno State season also marked the last time the Bulldogs had a chance to win 12 games, but they lost to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl to fall just short of the mark.
But as has been the case this season, these Bulldogs accomplished what past Bulldogs teams either couldn’t or rarely did before.
Twelve wins. The win at Boise. A Mountain West championship. And now, two victories against Pac-12 programs in the same season, last achieved in 2003.
Fresno State is back in the lead, sophomore Ronnie Rivers blasting 68 yards through the middle of the Sun Devils’ defense and into the end zone with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter.
It is the third longest touchdown run in Las Vegas Bowl history.
Rivers now has 127 yards and the touchdown on just 12 rushing plays.
McMaryion throws another pick
Marcus McMaryion has thrown a second interception in as many series, this one just a terrible decision. He scrambled around on a 3rd-and-8 play and ended up just throwing the ball up for grabs rather than away and out of bounds.
It was picked off by Chase Lucas at the Arizona State 47.
The Bulldogs have now turned it over on all three of their second-half possessions.
Arizona State intercepted a Marcus McMaryion pass and turned it into three points and a 20-17 lead, scoring on a 44-yard field goal with 5:33 remaining in the third quarter.
The interception snapped a streak of 153 consecutive passes without an interception for McMaryion. The Bulldogs’ quarterback is only 9 of 18 for 122 yards and the interception. He has hit running backs Ronnie Rivers and DeJonte O’Neal and right end Jared Rice twice, but KeeSean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Derrion Grim only once.
Fresno State ran a perfectly executed screen pass, all of the way to the goal line. But senior Dejonte O’Neal, diving toward the pylon, lost the football before crossing the goal line and it was recovered in the end zone by the Sun Devils.
The Bulldogs drive had been set up by a 41-yard punt return by Ronnie Rivers, but they came up with nothing.
‘Dogs D has three and out to start …
The Bulldogs’ defense started the second half with a three-and-out, its second of the game. It got the Sun Devils off the field after only three plays to open the game, as well.
About those third downs …
Arizona State is 6 of 9 on third downs, converting six in a row after Fresno State linebacker James Bailey cut down their first try with a tackle for loss.
The Sun Devils’ average yards to go is just 4.1 yards. Quarterback Manny Wilkins is 3 of 3 on third downs for 45 yards and Arizona State has rushed it six times for 17 yards.
The Bulldogs went into the game third in the Mountain West and 23rd in the nation in third down defense, allowing opponents to gain a first down on just 33.2 percent of those third-down plays.
Allison in double-digits
Fresno State linebacker Jeff Allison was in on 10 tackles in the first half, six of those tackles solo stops. This will be the seventh game this season he will have had 10 or more tackles with a high of 17 in the Bulldogs win at Nevada.
Eno at 6.6 yards per rush
Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin has 92 rushing yards on 14 plays, averaging 6.6 yards per rush.
Here is the Bulldogs against 1,000-yard rushers this season …
Josh Kelley (UCLA): did not play
Nico Evans (Wyoming): 18 for 58, 3.2 ypp
Juwan Washington (San Diego State): 18 for 38, 2.1 ypp
Alexander Mattison (Boise State): 30 for 144, 4.8 ypp, 2 TDs
Mattison 40 for 200, 5.0 ypp, 1 TD
At the half …
Arizona State has 230 yards of offense, the most allowed by the Bulldogs’ defense in a first half this season.
The Bulldogs have just 155 yards, which is not a season low. The had 104 yards in the first half in a loss at Minnesota, 116 in a win at Nevada and 114 at Boise State in the Mountain West championship game.
All square …
Arizona State has tied the score on a 20-yard field goal by Brandon Ruiz with 51 seconds remaining in the half.
The Sun Devils drive was 17 plays and 72 yards and they have now run 41 plays to the Bulldogs’ 25. The time of possession is 17:09 to 12:00.
Fresno State is back in the lead, scoring on a 10-yard run my quarterback Marcus McMaryion. The Bulldogs drive was 75 yards in nine plays – they had gone three-and-out on their previous drive.
McMaryion is now 6 of 12 for 76 yards.
The Bulldogs quarterback has now run for eight touchdowns this season and that was his first since he had two in a Oct. 13 victory over Wyoming..
There goes the lead
The Sun Devils offense is starting to roll it up, taking a 14-10 lead on a 17-yard run by Eno Benjamin with 12:43 remaining in the second quarter,
The drive was 58 yards in eight plays.
Benjamin, who set a single-season school record for rushing yards on the drive, has rushed it eight times for 61 yards and the touchdown.
Arizona State had an un-timed down at the end of the first quarter after a holding penalty and quarterback Manny Wilkins hit Tommy Hudson for a 7-yard gain, giving the Sun Devils 102 yards against the Fresno State defense in the quarter.
The Bulldogs’ defense has allowed fewer than 100 yards eight times in its last 10 quarters, and in nine games against Mountain West opponents allowed more than 100 yards in a quarter just nine times.
In two games against Power Five opponents, at Minnesota and at UCLA, the Bulldogs allowed 100 yards of offense only once in eight quarters.
Sun Devils answer
Arizona State has cut the Bulldogs lead to 10-7 with 1:25 remaining in the first quarter, scoring on a 3-yard pass from Manny Wilkins to Kyle Williams.
The Sun Devils drive was 65 yards in nine plays and along the way they had to convert a 3rd-and-9. Wilkins hit Curtis Hodges for 12 yards.
Tank strike, and its 10-0
The Bulldogs’ defense has scored again, cornerback Tank Kelly picking off a pass from Manny Wilkins and working his way 70 yards into the end zone, cutting back late to avoid a couple of tackles.
The 70-yard interception return is third third longest in Las Vegas Bowl history.
The interception was the fourth for Kelly his season, who went into the game tied for second in the nation in passes defended with 21.
Fresno State now has scored 114 points off turnovers this season.
The touchdown was the Bulldogs’ seventh on defense or special teams and their fourth Pick Six. Kelly also had a 39-yard return against Idaho, Mykal Walker had a 38-yard return against Toledo and Arron Mosby had a 95-yard return against San Jose State.
The other three scores came on special teams – two blocked field goal returns by Jaron Bryant against Idaho and one missed field goal return by Jamire Jordan against Hawaii.
Bulldogs on the board
Asa Fuller has Fresno State out to a 3-0 lead, hitting a 39-yard field goal with 7:02 remaining in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs’ drive was 45 yards in seven plays.
The field goal was the fourth in a row for Fuller, including two in the ran and snow in the Bulldogs’ 19-16 overtime victory at Boise State in the Mountain West championship game, Before that run, he had made only two of his past six attempts.
The Big 50
KeeSean Johnson is on the board, catching a 26-yard pass from quarterback Marcus McMaryion. It is the 50th consecutive game that Johnson has at least one reception, a Mountain West Conference record.
Nothing, to start
Fresno State moved 34 yards on seven plays to open the game, but stalled on its first third down and was forced to punt.
Arizona State will be down a number of players including linebacker Merlin Robertson and left tackle Zach Robertson.
That is the Sun Devils’ leading tackler and one of their best offensive linemen.
Merlin Robertson had a family emergency and Zach Robertson suffered a back injury during a bowl week practice.
The Sun Devils also are without their top wideout, N’Keal Harry, who is skipping the Las Vegas Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft.