It's hard for Fresno State fans to be satisfied.
Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs were outclassed by USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. The team's fourth down aggressiveness backfired. The all-conference quarterback was harried by pass rushers all afternoon. The depleted secondary was no match for the NFL-caliber receivers in red and gold. It was a long afternoon.
I had front row seats to the whole implosion, and even then much of the action occurred at the far end of the field from where I stood all afternoon. Perhaps that was my good fortune, depending on your world view, but as the game progressed the festive atmosphere around me grew somber. I looked across the field at the men of Troy, who danced like madmen after every touchdown, imploring their crowd to follow suit, and all I could do was watch in silence. I was so close to bliss, yet so far away.
That feeling describes most of the last 15 or so years of Bulldogs football, yet 2013 saw the program ascend to unprecedented heights and provide a new twist to a familiar dilemma. I sat in silence as I drove away from Sam Boyd Stadium and had to think about it: How can I be happy about this?
I believe that the answer is simple. The Bulldogs may have let a BCS berth and a Top 25 ranking get away, but the team was never boring.
It took roughly three minutes of game time in the season opener against Rutgers for the Central Valley to recognize this, right around the time that the 'Dogs went 74 yards for the first touchdown of the year and promptly coughed up a score on the ensuing kickoff. Four and a half hours and 100 combined points later, Charles Washington stopped the Scarlet Knights' overtime gambit and a season had its first lasting memory.
The season opener made a few things very clear, but the most enduring lesson is that the team would go as far as senior quarterback Derek Carr would take them. Few players in college football shouldered as much responsibility for their teams' fortunes, and Carr answered the bell. He owns over 20 school and conference records and is rightly considered as a first-round pick in May's NFL Draft.
Thankfully, Carr had help with the heavy lifting. Davante Adams was arguably the nation's best wide receiver, but he combined with Isaiah Burse and Josh Harper to form college football's best receiving trio. Each topped 1,000 yards, and fronted an aerial attack that opponents could not stop all year long.
While the offense hummed, the defense made for a lot of white-knuckling. After a win against Cal Poly and a canceled trip to Colorado, the 'Dogs had to outlast Boise as they did against Rutgers to reclaim the Milk Can. They then came under fire after surrendering a furious second-half rally in Hawai'i. The secondary came under the most scrutiny, having lost Philip Thomas to the professional ranks and Sean Alston to injury before the season began. It was not the ballhawking unit it had been in 2012, but one that was sorely tested week in and week out by number one receivers, most notably Chris Gant and Ezell Ruffin.
For most of the season, the secondary's struggles obscured a pass rush that finished among the nation's best. Defensive coordinator Nick Toth was not shy about leaving L.J. Jones, Curtis Riley and Jamal Ellis in man coverage to pressure opposing quarterbacks, a high-risk, high-reward approach that made a star of Ejiro Ederaine, a sophomore linebacker who racked up ten sacks in his first year as a starter. It also showcased safety Derron Smith, the media's preseason pick for defensive player of the year, as he totaled four sacks (tied for fourth among FBS defensive backs) and seven interceptions (tied for second).
It appeared that the defense was coalescing with easy wins against Idaho and UNLV, but the dream season almost fell into ruin in late October against San Diego State. Jones fell victim to injury and Ruffin had a monster performance in his absence, but special teams woes befell the Aztecs and allowed Fresno to escape with an overtime win. The 'Dogs were charmed, and fans allowed themselves to think about the BCS.
As autumn descended upon college football, it would have been easy for the community to wait for the other shoe to drop as it had in years past. The team kept winning, though, and we began to believe. Merchandise flew off the shelves, and the debut of alternate "blackout" uniforms was a wild success. Most importantly, fans filled the stands. After a few years of sluggish attendance at Bulldog Stadium, fans sold out the wins against Nevada and New Mexico that were sandwiched around a blowout victory in Wyoming. It may have taken the entirety of the BCS era to get there, but the ultimate prize was in sight.
Here is where opinions on the season will diverge. Pat Hill was fired as head coach two years ago, but the echoes of "BCS or bust" linger. The team may have been ranked higher in 2001, and 2005 may have ended badly, but this year felt different. Everyone was aware of the team's limitations, but it felt like a team of destiny.
It may not surprise anyone, then, that the subsequent loss to San Jose State was crushing. The secondary completely collapsed against David Fales. The running game, for all of its efficiency, disappeared from the game plan. Carr and Adams had their best games of the season and it was not enough. The letdown was late, but there it was.
So close, yet so far away.
To the team's credit, Fresno State rallied to defeat Utah State in the inaugural Mountain West championship game with a dominant defensive performance, but the schism of opinion is evident if you look at it. Cold weather may have played a role, but the paid attendance was the lowest of the year. Did the bandwagon lose a few thousand members? I'm reluctant to be reactionary, but not everyone gets back up when you punch them in the stomach for the umpteenth time. Fresno is fickle like that, I don't know what else to say.
I will say this, though: Fresno State fans sold out their share of the seats in Las Vegas, so I believe that most people share my sentiments that the season was a success because... well, they didn't have to show up. In the second half, when the offense finally flickered to life and Carr found Adams for their last touchdown connection as Bulldogs, the Red Wave came to life. When Smith intercepted Cody Kessler and dove for the corner of the end zone right in front of me, we erupted again. I traded high-fives with the guys around me and together we willed the Trojans backwards on their next drive. Our team had a chance.
Things didn't work out, of course, but by the time I got back to the hotel I felt alright about the way things had gone. The 2013 Bulldogs just might be the best team in school history, and that's no small claim. I think, for once, it became about the journey rather than the destination, and it was a hell of a ride.
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