In college football, 12 wins is a big number.
Fresno State had never been there with its two chances in 96 seasons ending in well-spaced bowl losses — the first in 2001, the second in 2013.
But the Bulldogs, riding a formula that had carried them through to a Mountain West Conference championship, got there Saturday and overcame three third-quarter turnovers with it all on the line in the Las Vegas Bowl.
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They got there on the legs of Ronnie Rivers, the bowl MVP who scored two second half touchdowns, including a 68-yard blast in the fourth quarter that put the Bulldogs ahead for good in a 31-20 win against Arizona State. Rivers finished with a career-high 212 yards.
They got there on the backs of a defense that went into the Las Vegas Bowl ranked second in the nation in points allowed; Jeff Allison, George Helmuth and James Bailey, Mykal Walker, Mike Bell and Juju Hughes, all of them, 1 through 11.
And they got there by taking down a second Pac-12 team this season.
Fresno State’s final record: 12 wins, 2 losses.
As well as countless memories to cherish.
“It’s unbelievable, I’m just happy for my seniors,” said safety Juju Hughes, who put down the game with an interception with 3:31 to go.
“To do it with the guys that we’ve done it with from start to finish, to go through those tough times, I knew we had it in us,” said senior tight end Kyle Riddering, who just three seasons ago was on a team that was 1-11.
“We just really came together. I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates, couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved in making this happen. It was a total team effort, and it showed the way we were able to put it together.”
Riddering was talking mostly about the season, but it fits the Las Vegas Bowl victory as well.
They struggled at times in the first half, despite a quick 10-0 lead that was built on a Pick Six by cornerback Tank Kelly.
The Bulldogs had a lead, then trailed, and at halftime the score was tied at 17, and they were reeling a bit.
But Fresno State had history on its side with brilliant play the third quarter.
Entering Saturday, the Bulldogs had outscored their opponents by a 150-21 margin in the third quarter.
The unit also had been stingy giving up yards, only once allowing more than 85 yards in a third quarter.
It was on it again against the Sun Devils, allowing just 31 yards, forcing three three-and-outs and a fourth on a drive that went into the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs’ offense, though, was melting down.
Dejonte O’Neal lost a fumble at the goal line on their first series and then quarterback Marcus McMaryion threw interceptions on the next two series.
McMaryion went into the game without an interception on 136 consecutive pass attempts, dating to the second quarter of a 48-3 victory over UNLV on this same field. Before that pick, he had 155 pass attempts in a row without an interception.
The second of McMaryion’s interceptions was not a good decision, especially coming from a senior quarterback who thrived all season by making good decisions.
On a 3rd-and-8 from the Fresno State 27, he scrambled away from pressure, making a big looping semi-circle in the backfield before just launching a pass downfield.
Its intended target, that was difficult to discern. But it was up for grabs and ended up in the hands of Arizona State cornerback Chase Lucas.
Then, Rivers broke through.
The sophomore running back, who had scored the winning touchdown in overtime in the Bulldogs’ 19-16 victory at Boise State to win the Mountain West Conference championship, darted through a hole created by left tackle Christian Cronk and left guard Logan Hughes in the middle of the Sun Devils’ defense.
“That’s something we worked on all week, being able to pick off that nose and seal him because we knew he was going to slant and we had Cronk taking care of the backside,” Hughes said. “We knew it was going to pop, man. There’s no better feeling than making the block and then being able to stand and watch Ronnie run all the way down.”
Rivers bolted, looked right, looked left and kept going, shaking off tackles by Lucas and safety Aashari Crosswell on his way into the end zone.
“They opened up a huge seam,” Rivers said. “I just had to run through an arm tackle and it was open field from there. I just had to use my speed to get to the end zone.”
Was he surprised to see that much open field, once clearing the line?
“Not at all,” Rivers said.
“It starts with Markus Boyer making the right call,” Cronk said. “We’re just going off him and feeding off his energy. As long as we stay on Markus’ call, we know we’ll be fine.”
With that Rivers’ touchdown, the Bulldogs went up 24-20 and turned it back over to a defense that had been on the field for a long time in the first half; Arizona State ran 41 plays and had the ball for 17 minutes.
It continued crushing the Sun Devils in the third and fourth quarters.
Arizona State (7-6) had 230 yards of offense in the first half, the most allowed by the Bulldogs this season. It had just 63 yards in the second half.
“We weren’t getting aligned correctly,” said Helmuth, who had 11 tackles along with Jeff Allison. “The thing we emphasized the most in the second half was just get lined up and play football, play gap sound football.
“When you have 10 other great players on defense all doing their job, it’s not that hard.”
For the Bulldogs, this team, it never looked all that difficult.
They won the West Division in the Mountain West with ease, hammered out a championship in the show in Boise.
“I’m excited,” McMaryion said. “A lot of guys were emotional. There are tons of seniors on this team and just the fact that we’re able to finish our college careers with a win, this just really means to world to us.”