Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna had tight end Cam Sutton running free in overtime.
He was wide open, more wide open than Ronnie Rivers was last week at USC. The Bulldogs were just a throw and a catch away from a victory over Minnesota, the first Power Five conference opponent to visit Bulldog Stadium since 2015.
Instead, they ended up with a loss.
The Bulldogs absorbed a 38-35 crusher on Saturday night when Golden Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. flew across the field to pick off a pass that Reyna floated toward Sutton.
It hung in the air just too long and Winfield made the play, just as USC safety Isaiah Pola-Mao had a week earlier when he sliced in front of Rivers to thwart what could’ve been a touchdown and a chance to tie with 1:45 remaining.
Two games. Two chances. Two losses.
“We just did not execute it the way that we needed to,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It was something we have been saving for the game if we got into that situation. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
Winfield interception, again
Winfield beat the Bulldogs last season, intercepting a halfback pass from Josh Hokit in the end zone with 1:18 to go. That pass, too, had floated just a bit too much.
“It was very similar, it was like deja vu,” Winfield said.
“I don’t think Antoine Winfield, Jr. will ever be allowed back in the state of California.” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said.
Fresno State got in position to win it by holding Minnesota to a field goal to start the second overtime.
The Bulldogs offense went to what had been working for it: first-down passing.
Fresno State threw the football on its initial play of the game, but then had rushed it eight times in a row on first downs. The Bulldogs had some successes – Rivers busted runs of 19 and 15 yards. But five of those eight plays went for 3 yards or less. The Bulldogs were left in some third-and-long situations and to that point they had just three points and had gained 95 yards on their first 20 plays.
Then, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and Reyna dialed up some throws.
Reyna hit 10 first-down throws in a row and was 12 of 13 when he tried to get the football to Sutton in the overtime.
Seven of those passes had gone for 10 or more yards and a first down.
Three of those passes had gone for 20 or more yards.
One went for a touchdown.
The senior quarterback had the Bulldogs’ offense moving and then …
Tedford: ‘Learning experience’
“I think it is a learning experience, obviously,” Tedford said. “We have to put the ball on the guys. The speed of the game is too fast out there to put a lot of air on the ball, especially when guys are so wide open.
“It is hard for a quarterback when guys are so wide open. People move fast on the field and you have to put it on him. He was wide open. Again, we give Minnesota credit for making a great play and we will learn from it and move on. We had our opportunities, we just didn’t get it done. There is a lot of plays to be made that will make us successful and we will continue to grow from it. I have a lot of confidence in this team that we will take the right mental approach, we will stay together and we will find a way to win the close games.”
Other chances to secure win
The last play is the one that hurts, but the Bulldogs had plenty of chances to secure the win. Minnesota forced overtime with a game-tying, 20-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-13 play with 46 seconds remaining in regulation.
Included on that tying touchdown drive, an 18-yard pass from quarterback Tanner Morgan to Rashod Bateman on a third-and-18 play.
On the touchdown Fresno State put double coverage on Bateman and Tyler Johnson, the Golden Gophers’ top two wideouts. That left senior Jaron Bryant, the Bulldogs’ best cornerback, man-to-man against Chris Autman-Bell running a slant and go.
The sophomore receiver, who had yet to catch a touchdown pass in the first 14 games of his career, made a stellar play to snare the football and get one foot down in the back corner of the end zone.
“There was a lot of plays to be made out there,” Tedford said. “It is a team effort. We win as a team and we lose as a team. There is no laying blame on any one person at all. We are going to stick together as a family and we are going to go back to work.”
By the numbers
3 – Career interceptions by Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who returned his first one 82 yards for a touchdown in 2016 and put down scoring threats by Fresno State in the end zone in the fourth quarter last year and in overtime on Saturday.
60 – Minnesota converted on 9 of 15 third-down plays, 60%. Included were a third-and-10 and a third-and-18. In two games, the Bulldogs’ defense has allowed USC and the Golden Gophers to convert on 15 of 28 third-down plays, 53.6%
2.1 – Yards per rush for the Bulldogs, who gained 57 yards on 27 plays.
75 – Plays run by the Golden Gophers. Only once in their past 25 games have they run more offensive plays – 81 in a 2018 season-opener against a New Mexico State team that would finish 3-9 and allow 41.3 points per game.
4 – Touchdown drives by Minnesota with 10 or more plays – it scored on drives of 11 plays and 75 yards, 10 and 65, 15 and 78 and 11 and 59.
2.5 – Tackles for freshman linebacker Levelle Bailey, who made his first career start.
3 – Interceptions thrown by Fresno State in back-to-back games (one at USC, two vs. Minnesota), the most since the 1-11 2016 season when it threw four in a loss to Air Force and then one in a loss to Colorado State.
14.6 – Yards per completion for Minnesota, 16 of 23 for 234 yards.
8 – Red zone touchdowns allowed by Fresno State this season with a TD percentage of 66.7. Last season, the Bulldogs allowed only 12 red zone touchdowns in 14 games and ranked first in the Mountain West and eighth in the nation with a red zone touchdown percentage of 44.4 (12 TDs in 27 red zone trips).
7.5 – Average yards per play for the Bulldogs on first-down plays (31 for 232). They still ended up just 3 of 10 converting their third-down plays into first downs.
34,790 – Saturday’s attendance, best home opener since the 2014 41,031 sellout vs. Nebraska and better than all but one game (San Diego State, 36,123) in 2018.
55-19 – Average score in Fresno State’s first three games of 2014 when it last started 0-2, then hit 0-3 with losses to USC, Utah and Nebraska. Fresno State looks for its first win of 2019 when it plays next on Sept. 21 at Bulldog Stadium against Sacramento State.