I say "exclamation point" in the same sense that an old-timey newspaper might blare "Disaster!" or "Calamity!" I say it because the seniors on the team, those who have experienced both the highs and the lows of the past four years, deserved much better.
Take Ejiro Ederaine, for instance. Fresno's star linebacker burst onto the national scene with a ten-sack campaign in 2013. Even though the quality of the play around him declined, he fought through injury and increasingly stacked odds to come back and finish the regular season tied for the MWC lead with another nine sacks this year. They even put him on offense for a goal-line plunge last night, which he converted easily for a Bulldogs score in the first half. It was a well-deserved nod to his three years of overall production.
Take Kyrie Wilson. Though he's been banged up off and on in 2015, all he's done for three years is make tackles, leading Fresno with ten (including one tackle for loss) to finish with 271 across four seasons.
Charles Washington, who's done pretty much everything he can do to hold a perpetually reshuffling secondary together, having split time at cornerback and strong safety for three years, starting his last game as a Bulldog at the latter position.
Marteze Waller, who found more running room -- with credit to senior tackles Alex Fifita and Justin Northern -- and was able to run with more power as a result than the Red Wave had seen nearly all year. His 112 yards on 27 carries represented what might have been his best overall performance of the season.
And that's to say nothing of the other seniors who have had moments to shine: Claudell Louis, Shannon Edwards, Bo Bonnheim.
What betrayed the Bulldogs on Saturday are the same things that have betrayed them all season long: big plays and a persistent inability to adjust at halftime. Joe Hansley's first punt return for a score represented the Rams' only offense in the first quarter; the second, a 61-yard dagger just before halftime, gave Colorado State momentum and the third, Kevin Nutt's 96-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter, enabled the Rams to lean heavily on its running game.
The Rams racked up 198 rushing yards in the second half. Izzy Matthews, CSU's freshman running back, led all runners with 145 yards on 18 carries, though Dalyn Dawkins and Jason Oden pitched in with a combined 100 yards of their own. Waller, by contrast, was essentially a non-factor after the break. Thirteen of 15 Bulldogs rushing attempts went for three yards or less after halftime, and though Kilton Anderson (19-33-182-0-0, 40 yards rushing) outperformed CSU's Nick Stevens (11-21-85-1-1) on the night, the freshman quarterback fell flat with the game in his hands late in the fourth quarter, allowing the Rams to salt away the game's final five minutes.
Granted, the visitors had some seniors playing their last regular season game, as well, and once bowl season concludes they'll also have some important athletes to replace. Like safeties Kevin Pierre-Louis and Trent Matthews, who combined for 19 tackles in the win. Like Hansley, who also led the Rams in receiving (3 catches, 46 yards) on an otherwise quiet night for CSU pass-catchers. Like offensive tackle Sam Carlson, who anchored a young and successful line, or linebacker/defensive end Cory James (7 tackles, 2 TFL).
Mike Bobo and the Rams appear to be trending in the right direction, and 2015 should already be considered a success when you consider that the Mountain division was no less competitive than when the program won 10 games a year ago. Colorado State (7-5, 5-3 MWC) will await word about its bowl destination following next Saturday's conference championship game, while Fresno State (3-9, 2-6) will enter this off-season with more questions about the program's future than any other in recent memory.