My score prediction coming into this game was 31-21, Fresno State. The final score was 31-20, Fresno State. I am unsure what to do with my new psychic powers, except call for a clean sweep for the Mountain West in bowl season. USU did their part with a 52-13 rout of North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl, and the Bulldogs took care of business in Vegas to win a program record 12 games.
Fresno State definitely got off to a quick start in this one, taking their second drive down the field for a now-accurate Asa Fuller field goal from 39 yards out. The vaunted Fresno State defense looked as advertised, and the offense was finding good traction running the ball. I will say that this was definitely not the best game of Marcus McMaryion’s career, which was sadly his last game in Bulldog red. After completing 70% of his passes through the season, with only 3INTs, he only hit on 51% today with 2 very uncharacteristic INTs in the 3rd quarter. Balls were overthrown, or dropped, or lost in the sun today. Not the best day throwing, but we got the win anyway.
Definitely the highlight of the first half was Tank Kelly’s brilliant pick-six. He caught Manny Wilkins staring down his receiver, and jumped the route. He added some brilliant stop-and-start jukes to evade ASU players, and got into the endzone to put Fresno State up 10-0. Let’s watch it happen in real time.
At this point, ASU started to climb back into the game on the legs of Eno Benjamin. The 3rd leading rusher in the country showed how strong he was, as it usually took two or even three defenders to bring him down, and almost all of his yards came after initial contact. He earned all 118 of his yards on the day, and was the biggest part of ASU’s offense today.
The Sun Devils briefly took the lead in the 2nd quarter, behind an Eno Benjamin rush, but these Dogs would not be denied. They got back to running the ball, and used Marcus McMaryion’s legs to find paydirt on a 10yd touchdown run to put the Bulldogs back up 17-14. The half would end with an equalizing field goal for ASU, after the longest 4th down in human history. Three timeouts, sending the offense out, then the field goal unit, then nothing, until Herm Edwards finally decided to kick the ball to go into the half. The game was knotted at 17, and Fresno State needed to make some serious adjustments to slow down the Sun Devil running game.
They knew they needed to make adjustments, and they did it. After allowing themselves to be gashed through the first half by Benjamin, they almost completely shut him down in the 2nd half. They moved Mike Bell up from his safety spot into the box, and dared Manny Wilkins to beat them with his arm. ASU responded with only a field goal in the second half, and multiple punts.
The real story in the 3rd quarter was Fresno State miscues. It started with a Dejonte O’Neal touchback fumble that was almost a TD. Truly crushing for the senior running back to have that switch from thinking you scored to losing the ball in the endzone. Then Marcus threw 2 incredibly rare interceptions. One was just trying to force the ball in double coverage, the other was a miscommunication between Michiah Quick and Marcus. Luckily, these turnovers didn’t hurt the Bulldogs, as ASU was only able to muster 3 points off the 3 turnovers. The Fresno State defense wasn’t going to let this team lose, and rose to the occasion to pick the offense back up.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Ronnie Rivers in this game. Ever since coming back in the 4th game of the season, he’s been a huge spark for the offense, using his speed and elusiveness to make defenders look absolutely silly. He’d gone over 100 yards in a game just once this year, against Hawaii, which is more a virtue of the Bulldog rotation than anything about him. Today, he got 24 rushes for 212 yards, 2nd most in Vegas Bowl history. The incredible sophomore put the team on his back in the 2nd half, scoring both of the Fresno State touchdowns to put the game out of reach, and lock up a record 12th win.
After going up 31-20, ASU would mount one more drive to try to come back, but a huge hit on Manny Wilkins put the ball in Juju Hughes’ hands, and iced the game for the Dogs. Luckily, Wilkins was able to get up and walk off the field. He took a monster hit from Mykal Walker that looked bad for his knee. The Fresno State players took a knee around him in support, a good show of class from this team.
The final seconds wore down, and the celebration was on. Fresno State won their first Vegas Bowl, got their first win over ASU, and that program record 12th win. It is impossible to overstate the job that Jeff Tedford and this team have done in two short years. In 2016, this team was 1-11, probably the worst team in the FBS. Two years later, they’ve won 22 games, two division crowns, a conference title, two bowl games, and will end the season ranked. The 2018 Bulldogs will go down in history as one of the best teams in school history, sitting in good company with the undefeated teams in 1961 and 1985. The 29 seniors on this squad won 3 games, 1 game, 10 games, then 12 games in their career. Those players gave their all to this program, and witnessed the lowest lows, and highest highs in program history. They showed everybody what Bulldog football was about by sticking around and building this new future. The Dogs should begin next season ranked, with a chance to take down USC to start another year under Jeff Tedford. The goal now is to keep this staff together, and hopefully keep the juniors back for next year.
My season wrap-up post will go up in a week or two, once the dust has finally settled on an incredible season. But for now, another trophy is going in the case, and this team can enjoy their record 12th win.