For the first time in 22 years, the Fresno State football team is an outright conference champion.
The Bulldogs (11-1, 7-1 Mountain West) held off the Utah State Aggies (8-5, 7-1 MW) in Saturday’s inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship game.
After the game, fans rushed the field and crowded around the 40-yard line for the trophy presentation. Amid chants of “Fresno State,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter, quarterback Derek Carr and safety Derron Smith hoisted trophies — and a novelty championship belt.
Forget the BCS game – the Mountain West Championship was on the minds of the Bulldogs since Day 1 of the 2013 season. And throughout the season, in each and every practice, the team was reminded of that penultimate goal.
“If your only goal is to go to the BCS, why show up and play?” DeRuyter said. “As a competitor, you always want to go out and play. That’s why I love the mantra of going 1-0.
“We said [the championship] was going to be our No. 1 goal. These guys have fought all year long and busted their tails.”
In his last game at Bulldog Stadium, Carr set more records and threw 36 of 53 for 404 yards and three touchdowns.
“This is the big reason why I came back,” Carr said, “I wanted to win an outright championship. Sharing the title with Boise and San Diego State was cool, but as a competitor, that wasn’t enough.
“We wanted to come back and finish this thing right.”
Carr’s 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Isaiah Burse in the second quarter was the 47th of this season, a Fresno State record. The senior also broke the single-season passing mark during a scoring drive in the fourth.
After suffering their first loss to San Jose State on Nov. 29, the Bulldogs stressed tightening their defense. Against Utah State, they did not allow a touchdown until the second quarter of the match, holding the Aggies to 40 yards in the first frame.
In addition, Fresno State had eight sacks and two interceptions.
“The performance that we put on last week against San Jose State is not the defense that we are,” said Smith, who had a sack and an interception in the contest. “We knew the mistakes we made and that they were correctable.”
Offensively, Fresno State got off to a slow start. After Carr was sacked on the first play of the game, receiver Davante Adams fumbled a catch that was recovered by Utah State.
“That is the toughest defense I’ve ever faced,” Carr said. “They are great in their secondary and their front seven is ridiculously physical.”
The Aggies were unable to turn the turnover into points, as Darell Garretson failed to convert on the fourth and 2.
In their second drive, the Bulldogs drove the ball down the field (51 yards) and settled for a field goal. Afterward, both teams were held scoreless for the remainder of the first quarter.
In the first drive of the second quarter, Carr lobbed a pass to a wide-open Marcel Jensen to score the first touchdown of the contest. After a Utah State three-and-out, the Bulldogs put together a 66-yard drive that ended with a Carr strike to Burse to give Fresno State a 14-0 lead.
Both teams traded scoreless drives, then Fresno State rusher Marteze Waller fumbled the ball in the red zone. Aggie defensive back Jake Doughty recovered the fumble and ran 86 yards for the Utah State score, sending the Bulldogs into the half with a 17-7 lead.
With less than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, Carr threw a interception to Utah State linebacker Brian Suite. The Aggies were unable to score from the pick. In the Bulldogs’ next drive, Carr threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Adams to increase Fresno State’s lead to 24-7.
Utah State kicker Nick Diaz scored two field goals in the fourth quarter to cut Fresno State’s lead to only a touchdown. Afterward, it was all defense: the Bulldogs and Aggies traded failed fourth-down conversions.
With less than a minute remaining in the game, Fresno State defensive back Dalen Jones had his first interception of his career to seal the victory for Fresno State.
There is still work to do. During the trophy presentation, the Bulldogs accepted the invitation to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, which will take place on Dec. 21 against the USC Trojans.
Until then, the Bulldogs will rest up and focus on finals. But once the semester is over, it’s back to the practice field.
“We’re just going to go about our business as usual,” Smith said. “Nothing really changes, we have to keep working on the little things. We’ll watch film and keep getting better.
“Just like every week: go back to business and go 1-0 in the bowl game.”