It’s said about people from Fresno that they have an inferiority complex. Fresno is the third largest city in the state (about three hours southwest of Los Angeles and three hours northwest of San Francisco, the two most highly populated), yet it doesn’t get a fraction of the respect of either. Our family has lived in Fresno for nearly 20 years so I do have some credibility when discussing the city, its good and bad.
Fresno has made the top ten “worst cities in America” lists on various subjects (murder per capita, dirtiest city, drunkest city to name a few) more than once. However, we raised our two boys here and couldn’t be happier living in Fresno. What I’ve discovered, up close and personal, is the pride Fresnans have in Fresno State University and, especially, its athletics teams. I was director of basketball operations during Jerry Tarkanian’s seven year tenure. Five times we played in the NIT, the other two in the NCAA tourney.
There is additional tradition in Fresno State athletics, e.g. NCAA championships in softball (1998) and baseball (2008) and an NIT championship (1983). This football season, though, was the perfect storm. If ever the Bulldogs were going to participate in the BCS, 2013 was the year. Its quarterback, Derek Carr, arguably (especially with Fresno State fans), the best QB in the nation, led the country in attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes (50 to 38 for the QB who was second – Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston). Prior to his college career, Carr was the adopted son of Fresno & the San Joaquin Valley because, first of all, he was from Bakersfield and second, and more importantly, his brother, David, not only played at Fresno State but played so well that he was the #1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
Even when Fresno State was 10-0, with Carr and his premier group of receivers (they ended the season as one of only five teams in history with three receivers having at least 1000 yards), they didn’t exactly blow through the competition. In the season opener against Rutgers, the home fans held their breath as, on the last play of regulation, the Scarlet Knights’s place kicker attempted a game-winning field goal. It was wide and the Bulldogs prevailed in OT. Later in the season, an identical situation occurred, only this time it came on the road at San Diego State. The Bulldogs blocked the FG attempt and prevailed in OT. In between those two contests, Bulldogs lost a chance to beat a BCS school when torrential flooding in Boulder, CO and the surrounding area forced officials to cancel the game. However, since Colorado was the second worst (Cal finished winless in the conference) team in the Pac-12, not playing might have actually helped. Adding to the drama, long-time nemesis Boise State (“only” 8-4 this season) came within a whisker of continuing its dominance of the Bulldogs when FSU won, 41-40.
What happened next against Hawaii people would only believe if it was a video game – substituting for the losing player was allowed. With 6:15 to go in the third quarter, the ‘Dogs led 42-3. Fast forward to the game’s final play, a Hail Mary by UH which, had one of their receivers caught it, would have resulted in a victory for the Warriors! The remainder of the games (until the conference championship game) were blowout victories with one exception – the last regular season game against San Jose State. The Spartans had a nice squad and a great QB but was really no match for the Bulldogs’ offense and Carr. Fresno State lit up the scoreboard for 52 points. Except that SJSU posted 62! Gone in a flash were the BCS hopes.
You would have thought Fresno was in mourning. Earlier that week, Northern Illinois had leapfrogged FSU in the computer poll and, because they were also a non-AQ and undefeated, it would have meant, had both schools won out, the one spot reserved for non-AQs (the entire scenario is too lengthy to explain) would go to the Huskies. During the week, as fans are wont to do, there was little talk of beating the Spartans (sure San Jose State was good but there was no way they could beat us), most of the chatter was the indignation of NIU passing up Fresno and taking away what was rightfully theirs. Until the Bulldogs lost.
As testament to their resolve, the squad rebounded with a 24-17 win over Utah State in the conference championship game (which, ironically, Northern failed to do the next week, rendering the point moot, and, serving up a message of “don’t count our chickens” for both schools). The Bulldogs were rewarded with something nearly as great (some fans would claim greater) – a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl . . . against USC.
At the outset of this blog, I said Fresno State had an inferiority complex. Of all the fine universities in the state, it’s USC that rankles people from the ‘No more than any other. I always felt Fresno State plays into it because SC (my employer prior to working for Fresno State) doesn’t think nearly as much about FSU as the Bulldog fans do about the Trojans. In fact I had the title of associate head basketball coach at USC in 1992 when the biggest win in Bulldog history occurred, the 24-7 thrashing of SC in the Freedom Bowl. SC’s coach was fired after the game, a new one came in and I didn’t hear about the Freedom Bowl again until I got to Fresno three years later – when the sports information director, who had seen I had worked at USC, said to me, “How ’bout that Freedom Bowl?” He could see from the look on my face I didn’t know what he was talking about so he reminded me. From then on, anytime someone asked me about that game, I told them what the general consensus was throughout the football nation. Fresno State was the more talented team. If you have some spare time, compare the rosters and you’ll see.
It was at that time I realized how much that game meant to the Fresno community. And now they were getting another chance. They had played since, when SC was #1 in the nation and Fresno State gave them their best competition, up to that date, losing 50-42 (a game that since has been wiped from the books as part of the Reggie Bush penalties). This year just might have been a repeat of ’92. Carr was the nation’s statistical leader, his numbers dwarfing those of SC’s QB (also from Bakersfield), Cody Kessler. Bulldog fans were feeling pretty good about this match up since the Trojans seemed in turmoil. Their coach at the beginning of the season, Lane Kiffin (ironically, a former backup QB at Fresno State), had been dismissed in midseason, replaced by defensive coordinator, Ed Orgeron, who rallied the troops, going 6-2 down the stretch. He abruptly quit when he was passed over for the head coaching position. So the team was going to be led by still another coach (with next year’s head man as a spectator at practices and the game).
As an aside, the two games the interim coach lost were to Notre Dame and UCLA. USC feelings toward them are infinitely worse than Fresno State’s feeling toward USC (except they play them every year).
Back to the Las Vegas Bowl. Everything was pointing to a Fresno State victory. A friend of mine who is not at all knowledgeable when it comes to college football asked me, “If you had an extra thousand to bet on the game, who would you bet to double your money?” My answer to any betting question is always the same, “The best way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.” Since he’d heard the line before, he said, “OK, funny man, what’s your answer?”
I handicapped the game as I saw it. “Fresno’s defense is its weakness but SC’s offense has been its weakness. SC’s really good defensively but Fresno State scores in bunches and Carr gets rid of the ball so quickly they ought to be able to score. Plus, SC only plays 12-13 guys on defense and Fresno State runs a no-huddle offense so they ought to be able to wear them down.”
The morning of the game, my wife and I drove to Monterey so we could watch the game on TV before taking in our son’s basketball game that night. On the drive there, we tuned into the Fresno State pregame broadcast. We heard what I told my buddy, except even more emphatically. “Our offense will definitely score 30 and I don’t know if their offense is capable of putting up that many” was the gist of one of the radio guys’ comments. “The Fresno State defense was suspect but it looked like they got that fixed against Utah State in the Mountain West championship game” was another point made.
One talking head complained that the network commentators for the game were a couple of former BCS players who had been bashing the ‘Dogs all season, saying they had played too soft a schedule, they couldn’t be taken seriously and how Fresno State was not worthy of a BCS spot, that bigger schools with one, or even, two losses were more deserving.
Well, the game started and USC scored on their first drive. The Bulldogs matched it but that was it. Even the PAT was blocked. It was a massacre. Throughout the game, viewers were reminded of the differences between the two schools. Perhaps the biggest was that, while USC was limited to only 50 scholarship athletes, about 40 of them were 4 and 5 star players – to Fresno State’s one (Carr, a four-star recruit). One argument that’s always bugged me was the one about “the schedule.” Sure, Fresno State had been 10-0, the critics said, but they hadn’t played anybody. Hey, you can only beat the teams you play. Football schedules are made years, even decades in advance. Fresno State didn’t know Rutgers was going to be 6-6 this year when the game was scheduled. Colorado certainly was better when the contract was signed. In this case of this season, a constant dose of lesser teams came to bite the Bulldogs when they finally faced an opponent the quality of USC. The commentators who had been crucifying the Bulldogs turned out to be right all along. They were people just trying to do their jobs, sharing opinions based on research. Sure, they were biased against teams from lesser conferences but anyone would have to admit their views were validated after this game.
The only factor that worried me about the outcome of the game was the betting line. USC was a six point favorite. Guys who make a living setting lines want an equal amount of money bet on each side. They don’t usually make mistakes. How could all those guys not see all the advantages Fresno State had?
If there’s anything to be learned from this year’s Las Vegas Bowl it’s this:
“Don’t mess with the wise guys.”