Fresno State Football

Bulldogs’ Las Vegas Bowl win came with a bonus, busting up that Power Five divide

So often this season, the Fresno State Bulldogs were in the right spot at the right time to make the right play, on defense, on offense, on special teams.

In a 31-20 victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday, it was no different.

On defense, senior cornerback Tank Kelly put up the Bulldogs’ first touchdown, stepping in front of a pass intended for wideout Brandon Aiyuk and took his fourth interception of the season 70 yards for a touchdown.

“We knew all year he started down his receivers so when I finally saw that he was looking my way, I just had to pick it off and take it to the house,” Kelly said.

On offense, senior guard Logan Hughes and senior tackle Christian Cronk executed assignments perfectly to spring Ronnie Rivers on a 68-yard touchdown run that put the Bulldogs ahead for good in the fourth quarter.

“That’s something we worked on all week, being able to pick off that nose (guard) 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.”

The Bulldogs won many more possessions than they lost, particularly in the second half overcoming turnovers on three consecutive possessions to wrest control from the Sun Devils.

LasVegasBowl017 (2)
Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford raises the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl championship trophy during a post-game presentation following Fresno State’s victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

They had 436 yards of offense to 293 for Arizona State. With Rivers busting out for a career-high 212 yards, the Bulldogs churned out 260 on the ground.

They had six tackles for losses, one sack, two interceptions.

The end result was the Bulldogs’ 12th victory of the season, a school record.

“It’s a good feeling,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It’s for the players. The memories that they are going to take away from this are going to last them a lifetime.

“They’re going to have reunions for many years to come. (Friday) night in our team meeting we talked about the bond they’re going to have for the rest of their lives. They can say they did something that no one else has done. It didn’t come easy, they overcame a lot through their time here, especially the seniors. I’m just really proud of them. I’ve asked them how history is going to record this team. They can put a stamp on it with 12 wins. That’s how history is going to record this team.”

When the Bulldogs do look back years from now, breaking through the Power Five divide likely will be just a footnote, if remembered at all.

But it is a critical piece going forward for a program that in the two seasons since going 1-11 has won 22 games, going 10-4 and 12-2 under Tedford.

Fresno State defensive players congratulate their teammate Jaron Bryant after making a third down stop against Arizona State during their game at the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Before this season, Fresno State had lost nine games in a row against teams from Power Five conference opponents and they were not close in any of them.

The average score, 51.2 to 16.0.

It wasn’t just Fresno State.

The Mountain West last season was 3-18 against the Pac-12 during the regular season. It was 3-14 in 2016, 4-19 in 2015, 5-17 in 2014, 0-17 in 2013.

Fresno State flipped that, led by 28 seniors including quarterback Marcus McMaryion, linebackers George Bailey and James Bailey, offensive linemen Micah St. Andrew, Markus Boyer, Hughes and Cronk, tight end Kyle Riddering.

The victory over the Sun Devils was the second this season for Fresno State against a Pac-12 team. Fresno State was 2-1 against the Power Five this year, losing only to Minnesota early on, 21-14.

Play to play, the difference is stark.

Rushing offense

In that nine-game losing streak …

  • 267 for 848, 3.2 ypp, 94.2 ypg

And, this season …

  • 111 for 497, 4.5 ypp, 165.7 ypg

Rushing defense

In that nine-game losing streak …

  • 408 for 2,083, 5.1 ypp, 231.4 ypg

And, this season …

  • 114 for 415, 3.6 ypp, 138.3 ypg

Passing offense

In that nine-game losing streak …

  • 205 of 369 (55.6), 5.3 ypp, 216.4 ypg

And, this season …

  • 61 of 96 (63.5), 6.9 ypp, 219.3 ypg

Passing defense

In that nine-game losing streak …

  • 175 of 247 (70.9), 10.1 ypp, 278.1 ypg

And, this season …

  • 45 of 80 (56.3), 5.7 ypp, 151.7 ypg

“I want them to be remembered as a group that persevered,” Tedford said. “I think (it) has been a life lesson about perseverance. They went through a hard time two seasons ago. To be able to continue to believe and work your way through that, life is like that.

Fresno State’s Ronnie Rivers, right, breaks free for a 68-yard touchdown in the second half of the Bulldogs’ 31-20 victory over Arizona State at the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

“They can be remembered as the only team in NCAA history to go from double-digit losses to back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins. They have accomplished a lot, and they should be very proud of that. This doesn’t happen by talking about it. There’s a lot of hard work and dedication that goes into it. The first year, they got 10 wins as the underdogs. This year they got 12 wins with a target on their chest, and that says even more about it.”

“I take a ton of pride in it,” McMaryion said. “I think the biggest thing, it’s kind of hard to think we did it 12 times this year because we were so focused every week.

“It’s cliché, but we literally were just locked in and treating every game like our Super Bowl.”

By the numbers

1 – Explosive play of 20 or more yards allowed by the Bulldogs’ defense, a 21-yard pass from Manny Wilkins to Brandon Aiyuk. In its 14 games, Fresno State allowed just 33 such plays (4 rushing, 29 passing). That is the fewest by a Mountain West Conference defense since TCU allowed 32 in 2010, and the Horned Frogs that season played one fewer game than the Bulldogs this season.

Fresno State’s KeeSean Johnson, right, tries to evade a tackle against Arizona State during their game at the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

1 – Tackle for loss allowed by the Bulldogs’ offensive line. Arizona State went into the Las Vegas Bowl ranked second in the Pac-12 in TFLs with 86.0.

212 – Rushing yards by Ronnie Rivers, tied for 14th on the Bulldogs’ single-game rushing list. The sophomore running back just missed his father’s all-time best. Ron Rivers had 218 yards on 29 carries in a 1993 game against San Diego State.

The 212 yards ranked second in Las Vegas Bowl history, behind Utah back Mike Anderson and his 254 yards against the Bulldogs in 1999.

286 – All-purpose yards for Rivers, with a 41-yard punt return and 33 receiving yards, also second in Las Vegas Bowl history. Boise State running back Doug Martin had 301 all-purpose yards in the 2011 game, also against Arizona State.

6 – Penalties in the game, three on the Bulldogs and three on the Sun Devils. That is the fewest in Las Vegas Bowl history.

10 – Targets to Fresno State wideouts. KeeSean Johnson had four, Jamire Jordan had three, Michiah Quick had two and Derrion Grim had one. The receivers group produced five receptions for just 61 yards.

4.2 – Yards per play by the Sun Devils. They are the ninth team the Bulldogs allowed fewer than 5.0 yards per play this season – Fresno State went into the game allowing 4.8 yards per play and ranked 18th in the nation.

44.4 – Third-down conversion rate for Arizona State. They started the game 6 of 7 but ended it 8 of 18.

6 – Three-and-outs for the Bulldogs’ defense, bringing their season total to 65 in 174 series.

436 – Yards of offense for Fresno State. The Bulldogs averaged 428.0 yards and 34.5 points this season against the two Pac-12 opponents it played, UCLA and Arizona State. The Fresno State defense allowed just 281.5 yards and 17.0 points in those games.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Related stories from Fresno Bee