It’s tough to imagine how despondent things were in Fresno two years ago. The team was bottoming out at 1-11, the roster was barely FCS-level, and the proposed stadium renovations had to be shelved because funding dried up. The entire coaching staff was fired, and Jeff Tedford was brought back to Fresno to try to rebuild the moribund team. Everyone around the program pictured a long-term rebuild, based around small, incremental improvements. Maybe a bowl game in Year 2, and probably 4 years before we would be competitive in the conference. Apparently no one told Jeff Tedford and his staff that this was supposed to be a slow build. He instantly came in and fixed a broken culture and broken program, and achieved historical success under a favorite son of Fresno. In Year 1, the team exploded onto the scene, going from 1 win to 10, including a Division crown and bowl win. Behind a dominant defense, the arm of transfer QB Marcus McMaryion, and freshman backs, the Bulldogs became only the second team to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in one year.
After such a strong first showing, expectations were definitely raised for Year 2. Even with the departure of DC Orlondo Steinauer, the corps of the team was returning, and the schedule didn’t feature powerhouses like Alabama or Washington on it. Still, there was a lot of questions. The entire starting defensive line was gone, they still had to play Boise in Boise, and they had to travel to face both Minnesota and UCLA. Another season winning the division, and getting 9 or 10 wins seemed probable and fine for the team. Again though, Jeff Tedford and this team had other plans.
The season started off with a complete evisceration of former conference mate Idaho, built around 7 turnovers, including two blocked kicks returned for touchdowns by Jaron Bryant. The team won 79-13, but this couldn’t really tell us a whole lot about the team as a whole, as Idaho wasn’t even a good FCS team this year. But the stadium was full for a game, something that seemed like a fantasy two years ago. The one plus was that the team got almost as many turnovers in one game as they had the entire season in 2017, so Bert Watts was definitely doing well in his new role as DC.
What seemed set up for a dream season in Fresno came screeching to a halt the next week though, as the team traveled to Minneapolis to take on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. Despite losing their star running back on the first drive of the game, the Gophers were able to lean on their defense, and created just enough plays to take a TD lead into the final minutes. Fresno State drove down the field, but on 1st and goal, tried a trick play halfback pass to the back of the endzone. Minnesota corner Winfield got in front of Jared Rice, and performed an incredibly acrobatic play to take the ball away, and hand Fresno their first loss of the year. All of a sudden, the dreams of an undefeated year, and the NY6 went up in smoke. Still though, this was a team with a lot of good, and a lot to fight for.
The week after the tough loss to Minnesota, the Dogs would have to take their show on the road again against the Bruins of UCLA. It had been 10 years since the two teams had played each other, and both were in wildly different places than they were that time. UCLA was starting over with a new coach, and a youth movement all over the team, and Fresno State was the senior-heavy school with high expectations. Despite a quick scare after the half, Fresno State controlled this game all the way through, and cruised out of Westwood with a dominating 38-14 win. P5 win, check. Winning record, check.
After thrashing the Bruins, the Dogs finally got to return to the friendly confines of Bulldog Stadium, where they’d face the Toledo Rockets. The last time the teams played, Toledo blasted the Dogs 52-14. For the players that were on that 2015 squad, they remembered the pain of that blowout, and wanted revenge. And revenge they got. Behind a stifling defense and a strong passing attack, the Dogs ran straight through Toledo 49-27. The score was even more dominating until Toledo scored two garbage time TDs to make the score look more respectable than it was. Mykal Walker also showed he was a star in the making with a brilliant Pick-Six of Eli Peters.
Finishing their out of conference schedule 3-1 was about what the predictions had for the Dogs, but they knew that conference play would be the true test of how great this team could be. They started their conference schedule against Nevada again, and used an elite defensive showing to slow down the Wolf Pack. A normally explosive Nevada offense was held to only 3 points, despite the offense only mustering 21 of their own. This game showed that even when the offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders, the defense was more than ready to rise up and shut down the opposing team. They would do the same to Wyoming the next week by a score of 27-3, moving the team to 5-1, and 2-0 in the conference. The team started to get some looks from pundits, and even some votes in the polls. There was still a long way to go, but this Fresno State team was starting to look more and more like what we all imagined it could be.
After two defensive heavy games, the offense returned to form against New Mexico and Hawaii, thrashing both teams by 30 points. Not even a partial blackout at Bulldog Stadium on national TV could slow down this team, and they took down Hawaii’s normally potent offense 50-20, with Hawaii only scoring in the final minute of the game to make it look semi-respectable. Next came a revenge game against UNLV, which was the only team to beat the Dogs in Bulldog Stadium in 2017. This time, the game was in Vegas, and only one team showed up. Even though UNLV had to use a backup QB, the Fresno State defense imposed their will from the coin flip, and took UNLV behind the woodshed 48-3. All of a sudden, this team was 8-1, undefeated in the conference, and ranked in all the polls. The Dogs were again ranked in the CFP poll, and looked poised to make some noise if UCF were to falter.
Then the Boise State monster reared its head again. The two teams have long played tight games, and this one was no different. On the blue turf in Boise, those Broncos upset the ranked Bulldogs behind Alexander Mattison’s rushing. All of a sudden, the Bulldogs had a conference loss, and would need to beat SDSU the next week to cover their side of the conference. And Boise remained the Mt. Everest to Fresno State, always blocking their way. The goal of a NY6 bowl game was now gone, but the dreams of a conference title was still there.
In what ended up being one of the best games in the conference, Fresno State and San Diego State went punch for punch, but it would be Fresno State and their defense that would win the day. The defense completely shut down the vaunted SDSU rushing game, and forced enough mistakes to win 23-14. The Bulldogs were back in business, and in complete control of their division for the 2nd year in a row. They just needed to avoid tripping on their rival, San Jose State, to make sure that a rematch with Boise would happen. A rather hum-drum affair with the listless Spartans followed, and we all knew that the Bulldogs and Broncos would be on the blue turf. This was also the first ranked on ranked matchup in MWC title game history, and would be the revenge that Fresno was looking for. After never winning against Boise on the blue turf, both fans and players alike knew this was the time to do it.
The conference always wants its two best teams in the title game, and this game was a heavyweight prizefight that everyone wanted. Both defenses brought their strong play to the snow-covered field, and a Matt Boateng blocked PAT ended up being the difference maker, as the two teams would enter Overtime locked at 13. The first ranked title game would also be the first to go into bonus football, for all of the prestige and trophies. And for the first time, the Bulldogs reached the peak. Ronnie Rivers took the pitch from Marcus McMaryion, darted around the edge of the line, and found the endzone to elation from players and fans alike. The team rushed the field, fans everywhere celebrated, and the Bulldogs were champions. It took only two years for Jeff Tedford and this team to go from 1-11 to 11-2, and their 3rd Mountain West Conference title. After thinking that the rebuild would take up to 5 years, the staff and players engineered one of the most improbable turnarounds in college football history, and had cemented their status as one of the best Group of 5 programs in the country.
All that was left was a bowl game against Herm Edwards and the Arizona State Sun Devils in Las Vegas. Now, there’s no way that this group of seniors were going to end their careers with a loss, and they played like a team determined to finally cross the threshold to 12 wins. 5 Fresno State teams had reached 11 wins, but none had ever reached the pinnacle of 12. Jeff Tedford was also the QB on the very first team to do it, so knew what it meant to this program to reach the peak, and he knew how good it would be to defeat two PAC-12 opponents in the same season.
Tank Kelly set the tone early, picking off a Manny Wilkins pass, and putting on a highlight worthy Pick-Six, and then it was the legs of Ronnie Rivers that carried the day. The sophomore running back ran for more than 200 yards, and easily netted himself the MVP trophy for the Las Vegas Bowl. Even with a brief ASU win, this team would not be phased, and fought all the way until the final seconds ticked away. They triumphed 31-20, and Fresno State was 12-2. The first ever team to make it to 12 wins, and one of only 3 teams to end the season in the national rankings. They ended their season at No.18 in both the AP Poll and Coach’s Poll, 2nd to only the undefeated 1985 squad for highest end-of-year ranking in program history.
Now that the rebuild is complete, the question is, where does Fresno State go now? There’s no chance they take people by surprise, and the 2019 squad will need to replace a lot of the key pieces from the 2017 and 2018 squads. But if there’s any staff out there that has proven more than capable of handling a reload of this magnitude, it’s Jeff Tedford and his staff. Especially with a Week 1 date with USC looming, the Best Team In California (TM) can stake their claim as the premier G5 program out West.
Now that you’ve read this far, have some video of the best moments from Fresno State’s season.
It's only fitting that senior DB Tank Kelly finished his career at Fresno State with a PICK-SIX‼️— Fresno State Football (@FresnoStateFB) December 16, 2018
Kelly gave the 'Dogs a 10-0 lead in the first quarter of the Las Vegas Bowl. #GoDogs pic.twitter.com/0fzZ2q7kDw