College football may be the only sport where a fairly decisive loss can leave just as good an aftertaste as a fairly decisive win.
It all depends who you’re up against, as far as the opponent, and what you’re up against, as far as perception and expectations.
The Bulldogs are supposed to pound the bejeebers out of FCS teams, especially those coming off home losses to Division IIs. So when Fresno State snoozed through most of Saturday night’s home opener before awakening in time to smother Sacramento State 31-3, no one left Bulldog Stadium entirely pleased. Not the players, not the coaches and certainly not the 31,817 who expected fireworks and instead got sparklers.
“Obviously we want the win, but personally I don’t feel good,” quarterback Chason Virgil said with requisite glumness. “I should’ve played a lot better.”
Add 20 degrees of heat index and subtract 60,000 spectators, and the evening felt like a mirror image of what we saw one week prior in Lincoln, Neb.
This time, Fresno State occupied the other end of the bully spectrum, giving a lesser opponent three quarters’ worth of hope before pulling the rug out with three late touchdowns.
Sacramento State for a good long while must’ve felt how the Bulldogs felt at Memorial Stadium, “in good position” for the upset. That is, until Nebraska shook them off with a similar barrage.
Obviously we want the win, but personally I don’t feel good. I should’ve played a lot better.
Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil
“Yeah, it’s funny, that conversation came up on the sideline toward the end of the game,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said.
So far in 2016, the Bulldogs have fought once above their weight class and once below it. And, honestly, I’m not sure how much we’ve learned other than they’re 28 points better than Sacramento State and 33 worse than Nebraska.
What does that mean heading into Toledo and Tulsa, opponents that should be more or less on their level?
It means we’re still pretty much guessing.
The most encouraging signs came from Lorenzo Ward’s defense. In coordination with punter Blake Cusick, who pinned the hapless Hornets inside their own 20 six times and three times inside their 10, the Bulldogs only gave up 185 yards and got off the field 13 of 16 times on third down.
6 Times Fresno State punter Blake Cusick pinned Sacramento State inside its own 20
Both starting corners (Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis) had interceptions that led to touchdowns. They sacked Nate Ketteringham three times and made five tackles for negative yards.
But for an unlucky bounce on special teams, Sacramento State wouldn’t have scored at all.
Which turned out to be rather fortunate considering how Fresno State’s offense played.
Looking more jittery and uncomfortable at home than he did on the road in front of 90,013, Virgil airmailed deep throws to open receivers (one of them nestled into the arms of the free safety) and misread running chances where he had the wide side of the field open and one defender to beat.
Virgil looked more jittery and uncomfortable at home than he did on the road in front of 90,013.
“I was saying to myself, ‘We should be up by a lot more right now,’ ” Glass said. “We all talked about it.”
With the halftime score 10-3 and the redshirt freshman completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes, DeRuyter and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau discussed going with backup Zach Kline in the second half. They opted not to, DeRuyter told me in the parking lot, because they believed Virgil would settle down.
It took most of the third quarter for that to happen, but Virgil finally stopped throwing off his back foot and started showing better accuracy. The first signs came on back-to-back completions to KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan on the drive capped by Dontel James’ 17-yard touchdown run that made the score 17-3.
By all appearances, however, Bulldogs fans grew tired of waiting. By the time the home team finally pulled away, the stands were noticeably less filled than they were during a yawn-inducing first half. (Yes, I actually did yawn.)
I just wish in the first half we gave (the fans) a better show.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
Which was a clear indication that although Fresno State accomplished the No. 1 objective, winning, they fell considerably short in the secondary mission to entertain.
“I’d really like to thank the Red Wave and our students for coming out, it was a great football atmosphere,” DeRuyter said. “I just wish in the first half we gave them a better show.”
This was not the confidence-boosting, swag-creating tour de force the Bulldogs really needed. Nor was it the kind of performance that should cause mass panic-button pushing. This one falls squarely in the middle, acceptable but wholly unsatisfying.
The rush to judgment being what it is, most will side on the negative. But until Fresno State comes away from a win feeling better about itself, or comes away from a loss feeling worse, we won’t know anything about this team really worth knowing.
Until then, it’s all just a work in progress.