They couldn't have made it easy on themselves. Of course they couldn't have.
To properly exorcise over a decade's worth of demons, you have to face them and overcome them. That is how I look at last night's Fresno State win, a game in which the Bulldogs were never able to land the knockout punch they'd delivered to others but did just enough to stay ahead of Utah State. When Dalen Jones held onto Craig Harrison's last desperate heave, it allowed Derek Carr the honor of the victory formation and allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. It was all I had left at that point.
The night began as a defensive showcase, which I have to think no one saw coming. Davante Adams leapt to make a first down catch and fumbled. The Aggies stalled at midfield. The teams traded sacks like they were going out of style. Darell Garretson had pressure in his face all night long, and he deserves a great deal of credit for the toughness it took to stand in and take the punishment.
It turned out that missing Josh Harper didn't hurt Fresno too much, either, since Aaron Peck and Marcel Jensen filled in quite nicely. Jensen has been overlooked as the trio of wide receivers has shined his season, but he opened the scoring and gave the 'Dogs the breathing room they would eventually need. Isaiah Burse made it 17-0 late in the second quarter, and I let my guard down.
Silly me, I guess, though I will never understand why Dave Schramm felt the need to run a read-option play when Derek Carr has been the nation's most prolific passer. Cute plays inside the 20 are Schramm's Achilles heel. As Jake Doughty ran the ensuing fumble back for a score before halftime, I knew the game was far from over. Carr had an average day, at least by his standards, since his 400 yards were tempered by two third-quarter interceptions. It wasn't until Davante Adams caught yet another end zone fade to make it 24-7 that I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
And what kind of hyperbole is left to describe Adams at this point? He's a redshirt sophomore, yet he's already the best receiver in Fresno State's history. His 23 touchdowns are second only to West Virginia's Stedman Bailey in the last half-dozen years. The voters for the Biletnikoff Award should be embarassed by their finalists because Adams isn't among them. He is the best wide receiver in the nation, plain and simple.
Utah State rallied, of course, because while the secondary played much better than they had against San Jose State, it always seemed like someone was on the brink of disaster in man coverage. The Aggies dropped passes when Jonathan Norton was beaten, or Garretson was missing opportunities, or Charles Washington was falling down in the process of defending a pass. On the other hand, it was the secondary that delivered the game's biggest play.
I watched the team's lone public scrimmage back in August. Dalen Jones was the one player that stood out the most that evening. He was playing with the second-string defense and flying around like an ICBM, delivering hits that made the audience wince and rankled the offensive players, and that was what the nation caught a glimpse of when he annihilated Garretson in the fourth quarter. I knew before they showed the quarterback flat on his back that he was finished for the game. It was Jones's first start of the season, the defensive backfield had been pushed to the breaking point by injuries, and he sent as emphatic a message as you can about what fans can expect to see next season. At least one position will be in good hands.
The Aggies never quit, however, stopping two fourth-down attemps late before Harrison's ill-fated turnover sealed Utah State's fate. It wasn't until after the clock reached all-zeroes and I was halfway home from my local establishment that it really sunk in: This is the first outright conference title in my memory, since the last was 24 years and two conferences ago. A bowl win over a Pac-12 team in the Las Vegas Bowl (Vegas, baby!) would wrap up the best season in program history and silence the critics who claim the 'Dogs have not beaten anyone. And for as crazy as the season has been, it's almost over.
We may never see another one like this.
Derek Carr is sure to be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft. Derron Smith may not be the MWC defensive player of the year after all, but he had a sack and an interception and he'll play somewhere on Sundays, too. Harper and Burse will be gone, and so will Tyeler Davison and Austin Wentworth. Tim DeRuyter's name creeps into every conversation about a major head coaching gig. Next year's Bulldogs could look radically different from what we see right now.
Perhaps we have been spoiled by consistency that masquerades as near-greatness. We've been left wanting as Boise State, TCU and Utah reached the BCS promised land. This is the pinnacle that Fresno State fans have been waiting for, and it may not be what we expected it to be but it's happening and it will be gone before we know it. Money and titles aren't everything. The true fans will relish this greatness and remember it forever.