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Tulsa vs. Fresno State recap: Bulldogs build 31-point lead; lose game, anyway

There may be no coming back from this one.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

I had to think about how I wanted to begin this recap.

Some didn’t take to my (pardon the pun) incendiary take on last week’s disaster in Toledo but, having watched this game live from beginning to end, taking the same tone just wouldn’t work, anyway. The Fresno State Bulldogs didn’t just blow a 31-point lead on Saturday afternoon. The ‘Dogs didn’t just lose a football game to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 48-41 in double overtime.

They probably lost the community’s backing for good in 2016, ending any real interest in the Tim DeRuyter era.

I say this because of what I saw and heard leaving Bulldog Stadium. Immediately after Chason Virgil (21-45-276-1-1, 47 yards rushing and two rushing TDs) threw his last incompletion in the second overtime, the fans around me in the stands could barely muster groans. One man threw his hands up, looked at his friend and said out loud, to no one in particular, “Thirty-one. Thirty-one, DeRuyter.”

Mostly, though, I heard silence. I heard it from the fans — a paltry crowd of 23,273 — who filed out when Tulsa first took the lead early in the fourth quarter, from those who trudged to the exits with their loved ones after the game’s inevitable result. I heard it from the players as they walked off the field, broken by the lonely sound of one clapping fan.

Everyone saw this team as they could be, and then they saw them as they are.

The first twenty minutes of the game could not have gone any better for the Bulldogs. Lorenzo Ward’s defense looked inspired by last week’s humiliation, allowing just 36 yards on Tulsa’s first seven drives. James Bailey had plenty of work covering Tulsa receiver Keevan Lucas and acquitted himself very well despite the task. Jeff Camilli had two sacks. Against an up-tempo attack like Tulsa’s, such a complete performance must have felt like a fever dream to many.

Eric Kiesau’s offense looked explosive, too: Aaron Peck and Keesean Johnson (13 catches combined for 148 yards) made tough catches and showed they could move the chains with consistency. Virgil and Dontel James showed they could be a viable duo running the read-option. Jamire Jordan (six catches, 108 yards) had a 44-yard catch and run on a lateral which gave him space to accelerate after shaking off the first defender to meet him, and the 65-yard bomb he caught for his second score arrived as he’d beaten his defender by nearly five yards.

And then, with a 31-point lead, it began to fall apart more quickly than it had been built.

Tulsa’s quick strike offense was bound to break through at some point, but after the Golden Hurricane broke through to make it 31-7, here’s how Fresno State responded on their next three drives: Run, incomplete pass, incomplete pass; 51 seconds. Run, incomplete pass, incomplete pass; 46 seconds. Incomplete pass, run, 7-yard pass play. One minute, eight seconds.

Up more than three scores, Fresno State elected to continue throwing the football rather than attempt to take time off the clock. At the same time, Tulsa’s tempo began to pay dividends: Scoring drives of 68, 71 and 60 yards took a combined three minutes and 56 seconds, and a 31-21 halftime lead felt more like a portent of things to come.

It was. From 31-0, Tulsa outgained Fresno State 540-196 on offense, hammering away at the heart of the Bulldog defense with DeAngelo Brewer (46 carries, 252 yards) and attacking blown coverages created by their pace of play. Dane Evans started 5-for-10, but finished 17-of-22 with four passing touchdowns (22-32-273-4-1 overall), and two of his receivers, Lucas and Josh Atkinson, finished with over 100 yards receiving.

The team this could be never disappeared completely, though. Virgil threw a tip-drill interception in the end zone, but it was repaid by a Jamal Ellis INT two plays later. The sophomore QB also showed guts late in the fourth quarter on Fresno State’s last scoring drive, hurtling toward the end zone one play before his one-yard sneak made it 41-38.

Those glimpses weren’t enough. The Fresno State Bulldogs blew a 31-point lead and lost. Even with a lack of context, we know it was the largest comeback in Tulsa football history, and it’s easy to argue that — in an era marked by an uncomfortable number of egregious losses — this might be the worst in DeRuyter’s brief time as head coach.

I’ve wanted to defend him in a rebuilding year, since I didn’t harbor any expectations of actually competing for a Mountain West title in 2016. I don’t know how I’m supposed to explain this away and feel good, or even justified, in doing so. His team had a 31-point lead... and lost. He’s going to get fired, that much is clear, and I don’t envy Jim Bartko, Fresno State’s athletic director, for having to negotiate a situation that grows more untenable every Saturday.

How long does he let DeRuyter coach for his job when it already seems like the fanbase has turned on him for good? How many losses does he allow this team to take, risking a half-empty stadium or worse every Saturday? With the ambition that this program has, I doubt he can afford to wait for long, but I have no real idea.

Next Saturday, the Bulldogs (1-3) will begin Mountain West play against the UNLV Rebels. Tulsa (3-1) will head home to begin AAC play against SMU.