In the 95-year history of the Fresno State Bulldogs football program, the team had never posted a season with ten losses. Sadly, there’s a first time for everything.
With their 14-13 defeat against the Hawaii Warriors, an effort equal parts inspiring and frustrating, the ‘Dogs more or less clinched their place as the worst team in the program’s history. Not since World War 2 has the program withstood such a precipitous decline, and the latest result carried many of the markers from past losses, good decisions undone by poor ones.
Zach Kline made his first start of the season, a decision that, from here, makes little sense when the Bulldogs are simply playing out the string and, quite frankly, thinking outside the box elsewhere. He finished 13-23-108-0-0, averaging just 4.7 yards per attempt, and for the second straight week his quarterback rating sat under 100, which makes me wonder how all of the fans clamoring for that QB change are feeling right about now. Kline also chipped in with 52 yards rushing, but anyone looking for a spark from the switch has to be sorely disappointed.
The spark on offense actually came from Josh Hokit, who moved from linebacker and promptly had the best running performance of the year by any Fresno State runner: 18 carries, 97 yards. On the whole, Fresno State’s rushing attack pounded Hawaii to the tune of 211 yards on 50 carries, an unexpected surprise that, if it wasn’t always explosive, was still leaps and bounds more productive than we’d seen virtually all year long.
On defense, the Bulldogs had perhaps their best overall performance of the season, holding Hawaii’s running back trio of Paul Harris, Diocemy St. Juste and Stephen Lakalaka to 67 yards on 18 carries. Three sacks, from Wyatt McBee and Tobenna Okeke and Stratton Brown, represented the pass rush’s best performance since the Tulsa game in late September. Tyquwan Glass’s interception was the first since that game, as well.
They kept the big plays to a minimum, too. Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown, who went 20-31-227-0-1, had just two passes of 15+ yards through three-and-a-half-quarters-plus of action, and though UH linebacker Jahlani Tavai had another big game with twelve tackles and three tackles for loss, the Bulldogs allowed just one sack and did not turn the ball over for just the third time this year.
And on top of all of this, the ‘Dogs also let Hawaii play undisciplined and inefficient football: Already the most penalized team in the conference, the Warriors racked up 89 penalty yards, and their 1-of-11 performance on third downs was the worst such figure since their lopsided loss at Michigan.
It didn’t matter.
The game turned on play calling reminiscent of the endgame against Nevada, when they elected to throw four straight times at the goal line despite the rare productivity of the running game. On Fresno State’s next-to-last drive, at the Hawaii 10-yard line with four minutes to go, they let Kline throw on second and third down rather than take more time off the clock. That decision might have forced Hawaii to burn timeouts, at a minimum, and it was about as indefensible as it gets when you consider that Kline had thrown for roughly one yard a minute to that point (he went into the last-ditch drive with just 62 passing yards).
After Kody Kroening kicked his second field goal of the game to make it 13-7, I knew it’d be cosmic justice that Hawaii took the time they had to drive the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown. They did, working their way out of a third-and-25 situation at their own 26-yard line and seizing the opportunity afforded by a fourth-down roughing the passer penalty in the Bulldogs’ red zone. Lakalaka capped the 76-yard drive with a two-yard plunge that held up after review.
Lamentably, the story of the season is what you see in the image above. Kroening, who has a serious argument as the team’s MVP, given an opportunity to steal the win, had his attempt blocked at the line as time expired. Even the team’s strengths have fallen into misfortune at inopportune times, a literal example of “what can go wrong, will go wrong” that, when the season is written in history, will probably get overlooked.
Hawaii (5-7, 4-4 MW) will head back to the islands to host Massachusetts next Saturday, while Fresno State (1-10, 0-7) will face San Jose State at Bulldog Stadium in the season finale.