This might be hard to believe now, with Fresno State winning the Mountain West Conference football championship, the Las Vegas Bowl and a school-record 12 games this season, but the whole thing started with a little bickering, which led to a little in-fighting, which led to a meeting on the practice field right after a conditioning run.
This is back in the summer, with the Bulldogs coming off a 10-4 season and with a team that returned 17 starters.
“It was odd to have that, because we were so close,” said linebacker George Helmuth, who at the start of the season was voted a team captain along with quarterback Marcus McMaryion.
But, cornerback Jaron Bryant said, “We were all over the place.”
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“We were having issues, just a little bickering, a little fighting,” Helmuth said. “We were on each other, working out and stuff. It all came from guys not making their times and not getting in shape.”
The Bulldogs weren’t close to hitting the standard that they had set in 2017 when they became only the second team in FBS history to go from double-digit losses in one season to double-digit victories in the next. On those summer conditioning runs, there was some slippage.
“It felt good that we went 10-4 because we had just come back from 1-11,” linebacker Jeff Allison said. “A couple of people were like, ‘10-4, that’s cool, this and this.’ … But we had to remind them that we didn’t do anything because we failed our mission. Our mission was to win a Mountain West championship.
“We had to remind everybody that we’re out here with a purpose and if you don’t want to be out here and do it the right away, then you have to find something else to do. The message was to come out here, let’s compete together, let’s get better together, become a family and do what we do best.”
It was that blunt.
“It was, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do and you’re either with us or your against us and if you’re going to be against us you might as well leave,’ ” Bryant said.
It was what the Bulldogs needed.
“There’s always going to be bickering back and forth – it’s a football team,” Allison said. “When you’re around so many players so long for the summer, for fall camp, for the season, every little thing will start to get on your nerves, but at the end of the day we’re a family and we all get back together and nothing is going to break us apart.”
“Blood couldn’t make us any closer,” defensive tackle Jasad Haynes said. “We are one. You saw that on the field.”
Helmuth said that started when the Bulldogs buried any animosities in that summer meeting.
“We hashed it all out,” he said. “We got back together, and ever since then things have been smooth, through fall camp, through the season.”
The season that ended with a 31-20 victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Between there and here, the Bulldogs put together a fascinating season, one of the best in school history, with a bevy of super-sized plays and quiet moments in games, on the practice field and in meetings that years from now will stand a test of time.
James Bailey, the senior linebacker, said he will carry the memory of a meeting in the linebackers room with coach Kenwick Thompson, who was telling his position group a story from when he played. It was about the game, the bond, the emotion.
“In the locker room his coach turned off the lights and told everyone to buckle their chin straps,” Bailey said, retelling the story that “Coach Wick” shared. “You could just hear it in your imagination, the click, click, click, click, click. ... That noise is something you’ll never forget.
“He had me thinking it’s the little things like that are going to be the things that you remember, just getting ready, going out there to play with your team on Saturday under the lights. Every game, you’ll remember, no matter how big it is, no matter how small it is, you’ll always remember it.”
There were double-XL plays by the Bulldogs in the their bowl victory – the interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Tank Kelly, the 68-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Rivers, the third-down sack by Bailey to put down a Sun Devils drive after Fresno State had taken a lead in the fourth quarter, the pick by safety Juju Hughes that sealed the victory.
And, more along the way …
“There are so many,” wideout Jamire Jordan said. “This whole year was fun.”
Record field goal return
There was the 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown Jordan had against Hawaii.
The Bulldogs practice that play every Friday, part of their final walk-through before a game. But Jordan was still on the sideline when the Rainbow Warriors sent their field goal unit onto the field.
“We were going to just run regular field goal or whatever, and I went up to Coach and I told him, ‘You know, this is why we practice it,’ “ Jordan said, a big smile on his face. “It never really happens – you hardly ever see that in the game. But I’m out here every Friday doing it, so why not do it Saturday?”
The Bulldogs called a timeout and sent Jordan deep into the end zone.
The try was from 53 yards, and well short.
“I saw it coming short and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,’ “ Jordan said. “Then I saw the wall and I was like, ‘Wait, we’re going to score.’ “
Jordan got a last block around the Hawaii 20 from cornerback Matt Boateng, who would make a special teams play of note later in the season, blocking the PAT to keep the Bulldogs in a tie with Boise State in the Mountain West title game.
The 2-point play
The Bulldogs’ tight ends had a big season with Jared Rice second on the team in receptions and Kyle Riddering and David Tangipa also catching touchdown passes.
But the best score by a tight end belonged to Gunner Javernick. It was only for two points, but it meant so much more.
In the third quarter of a 38-14 victory at UCLA, Fresno State attempted a 2-point conversion that would make the score 24-14. The Bulldodgs ran a trick play, with four players lined up wide right and four players lined up wide left, out by the numbers. There was motion and at the snap of the ball Javernick looped to the inside and caught a pass from Jorge Reyna.
The try, good.
The Bulldogs had worked on it during the week in practice, but even then they were not sure it would ever be called in a game. When it was, Reyna didn’t take a look back at the sideline. But he did take a peek out at Javernick, one of the four lined up to the left.
“He was like, ‘Yup,’ “ Reyna said. “He was all happy. You could see the gleam in his eyes. I put it right on his chest and he caught it and scored.”
That’s not the end of it.
“After the game in the locker room, I look over at Gunner and he’s crying. I’m like, ‘Hey, man, you OK?’ because he’s checking his phone and his brother sent him an ESPN tag that said ‘Gunner Javernick scored’ and he was like, ‘Man, this is the best feeling I’ve ever had. Thank you. This is the best present. This has been on my bucket list and you were able to provide it for me. Just, thank you.’
“I was like, ‘Wow, man, I thought something was wrong.’ … I don’t want to cry right now.“
It was Javernick’s birthday.
Blocked field goal TD, times two
Until Sept. 1, no FBS team had ever returned two blocked field goals for a touchdown in one game. Then the Bulldogs’ Bryant did it … in one quarter.
In a 79-13 rout of Idaho, Kelly blocked a Vandals’ attempt from 36 yards and Bryant scooped up the ball and raced 74 yards into the end zone.
Bryant was not expecting it to happen a second time.
It did, after Mykal Walker blocked an attempt from 39 yards. The ball bounced right to Bryant and he took off again, scored again, this time from 71 yards.
But before the snap, lined up along the line of scrimmage, he turned to Bailey with a question: Are we on the block side or the return side?
“I was shocked – I didn’t think it was going to get blocked again,” Bryant said. “I was just out there chilling. Then the ball went over there and I said, ‘Again? Really?’ I picked it up and just started running.”
Haynes, who walked on at Fresno State from Clovis North High, was a sixth-string defensive tackle in his first fall camp and eventually earned a scholarship, working his way into the starting lineup. On the first play of that first start, the season-opener against Idaho, he was credited with a quarterback hurry. Two series later, Haynes forced and recovered a fumble on a tackle for loss.
Coming off the field, the first person he saw was Patrick Belony, another defensive tackle who had to do a lot of work to get into the playing rotation.
“Right when I got up I was thinking about everything I went through here,” Haynes said. “It was bittersweet. Pat was just as excited as me, because he knows. We came in together in the same class and he knows how much work we put in. We just made eye contact and we just went crazy after that.”
“I can think of a lot of great plays we had,” Rivers said.
Fresno State had 73 explosive plays of 20 or more yards this season, its most since 2013. It forced 26 turnovers, its most since 2012. Kelly had the Pick Six in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State, and before that one against Idaho. Walker had an interception return for a touchdown against Toledo and linebacker Aaron Mosby had a 95-yard Pick Six against San Jose State.
In winning the Mountain West championship 19-16 in overtime in the snow at Boise State, Asa Fuller kicked two big field goals and Boateng had the blocked PAT.
“We kind of noticed that the wing doesn’t really get a hand on the edge guy usually, because I guess they trust the operation time to get the kick away,” Boateng said.
“I really just honed in on just getting a great start and selling out my body and doing everything that I can to make that play.”
But the last play in that game is the first to come up, most often.
That’s Rivers, scoring on an option pitch from McMaryion.
“The play before, I felt I should have got into the end zone,” Rivers said. “But coming back into the huddle after the timeout, I just told my teammates that I really wanted this bad. I want to win this game, so of course I want the ball in my hands.’
“I knew I had a chance to get the ball. Marcus said, ‘Hike,’ the D-end crashed on him real hard, he pitched the ball to me and I just had to make one dude miss and I was able to make him miss and get into the end zone.”
Bailey, on the sideline, couldn’t bring himself to watch. “I was standing on the bleachers with Coach Wick and George and, man, my stomach was turning. I had my head down, but I kind of looked at the Jumbotron and I kind of saw Ronnie skip in and it got quiet. It didn’t click to me right away …”
When Rivers crossed the goal line, the Bulldogs came flying off the sideline in celebration. “It was the best feeling of my life,” said Walker, who had 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack and was selected the defensive most valuable player in the game.
“I was standing right beside Delvon Hardaway,” Boateng said. “We ran out there as fast as we could. I damn near pulled my hamstring, but it was a great time.”
“There’s no feeling like it,” McMaryion said. “It’s hard to put words on the emotional high. It was an amazing feeling to see Ronnie cross that line and see the whole team rush the field. I took a moment to pause and soak it all in.”
For coach Jeff Tedford, it was a marker in a run of success at his alma mater that could go on for a while. “To know that it was over at that point, was an awesome feeling,” he said. “To know that these guys accomplished what we set out to accomplish, awesome feeling.”
It was huge, also, for the Bulldogs that just three seasons ago had finished 1-11. “Coming together to win, fighting all night long, it’s hard to say that wasn’t the highlight of the season, that final play right there, to look back on that field and know that we finally put it together, we finally got it done,” said Riddering, one of those seniors.
“After everything that we have been through, after the lows, after almost getting there last year and not getting it done, to finally finish and accomplish everything that we set out to do is an incredible feeling and I wouldn’t want to do it with any other guys, any other coaches, anybody else.”
“It’s something I haven’t felt before,” Rivers said. “Playing high school ball, I never felt something so overwhelming than winning that game in overtime.
“It’s something that I’ll never forget.”
In a season of bests, three stand out:
▪ Middle linebacker Jeff Allison was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
▪ Wideout KeeSean Johnson set school records for career receptions and career receiving yards, finishing his career with 275 and 3,463.
▪ Quarterback Marcus McMaryion had one of the best seasons ever for a Fresno State quarterback, completing 68.6 percent of his passes for 3,629 yards with 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions. His passing efficiency rating was 156.99, which was higher than that of Derek Carr in 2013 (156.29) and in 2012 (155.94).