Fans at Bulldog Stadium shine lights from their cell phones during the ‘Dogs’ 38-24 victory over rival San Jose State Saturday night. Photo by Darlene Wendels/The Collegian
It was the drink of water a thirsty Fresno State football team needed.
As the defense was on the field, trying to prevent its rival from pulling away, a swarm of fireflies and the sound of booming thunder entered Bulldog Stadium and provided an assist the Bulldogs needed to keep their playoff chances alive.
One light from a cell phone popped on. Then another, and another. Soon, Bulldog Stadium had a new design: small lights dotted the stands, the goal of which was to distract quarterback Joe Gray and the San Jose State offense.
It was unheard of this far into the season. In the midst of a tumultuous time for Fresno State, is this a new tradition provided by the Red Wave? After all, it seemed to work. The Spartans wound up committing three false-start penalties in one drive.
There is still hope in Fresno.
Bringing back Burrell
Practice didn’t seem as fun anymore, and the signal-caller woes that gave the Bulldogs notoriety in the Mountain West resurfaced.
At least on the surface. The ‘Dogs knew what the next step was — even if it was something not many fans agreed with: bring back Brian Burrell.
Burrell said he had known since earlier this week that he was starting the San Jose State game. An originally unpopular decision, it was greeted rather nonchalantly at the Stadium. Clearly, the Red Wave was checked out.
But, as the season stats showed, it was not a terrible decision. Remember, Burrell still led the team in every quarterback-related category: completions, passing yards, touchdowns and, yes, interceptions.
And after going 20-26 for 207 yards and three touchdowns, he has proven himself to be the starting quarterback moving forward.
Defensive game improves
Last year, Fresno State gave up 62 points to a hungry San Jose State offense led by then-senior quarterback David Fales.
This round, coming into the game, that was a blemish that the Bulldogs still had. It was the one game that soiled a perfect season, and with the country’s No. 1 quarterback in the NFL, there was wonder how much of a deficit the ‘Dogs would have against the Spartans.
The answer: zero. The ‘Dogs looked more prepared for what was coming to town and were able to take advantage of mistakes the Spartans had.
One came after the arrival of the Fresno State fireflies, when Spartan punter Michael Carrizosa’s attempt was blocked by Da’Mari Scott. T.J. Thomas caught the ball and jogged into the end zone to put the ‘Dogs up two scores going into the half.
Two more important turnovers came in the fourth quarter. The first happened with 8:49 left on the clock. After a timeout, Gray attempted a pass to the right that was picked off by Fresno State defensive end Charles Washington, a move that surprised Washington himself.
The second ended the game. After forcing Fresno State to punt, the Spartans received the ball at their own 17-yard line. On the first play of the drive, the snap was dropped, and Fresno State’s Justin Green recovered it.
An improved ground game and consistent offense
It looked like Wyoming running back Brian Hill’s ground presence last week was a learning moment for Fresno State.
The freshman amassed 387 all-purpose yards — 281 on the ground — in the Cowboys’ 45-17 assault to the Bulldogs.
This time, the ‘Dogs were going to be the ones using the field. Marteze Waller took the reigns of the Fresno State offense and rushed for 55 yards in the opening drive to give the ‘Dogs an early touchdown. He totaled 145 yards on the ground before a shoulder injury sidelined him shortly before the half.
Josh Quezada took over for the rest of the game and totaled 112 yards on 24 carries. The 232 total rushing yards for Fresno State were over two-and-a-half times the amount San Jose State had in that department.
Waller’s touchdown was the only one the ‘Dogs had on the ground. Their other three came from Burrell: two to wideout Josh Harper and one to tight end Chad Olsen.
In fact, Burrell’s numbers look pale compared with Gray’s 350 yards, two scores and 26 completions of 44 attempts. But with the balanced offensive approach, Fresno State is ready to move past the days of 500-plus passing yards.
Still a chance at the title
A break awaits Fresno State, where it will have time to savor the victory and plan for more work ahead.
The ‘Dogs will head to Reno, Nevada, in a couple of weeks to face the Nevada Wolf Pack, which share a first-place lead with the San Diego State Aztecs.
But since the Bulldogs own the tiebreaker against San Diego State, it’s simple: win out, have San Diego State lose another game, and Fresno State is in the Mountain West Championship game.
It may have been a tough season for the Bulldogs, but hope is not all lost.
Instead, it is enlightened.