Since everything is still shut down, and we’re all starving for content, figured it’s as good a time as any to take a trip down memory lane for Fresno State football. I’ll be going through a few of the great teams from the past that left indelible marks on the Bulldog program. First up, the undefeated 1985 team!
1985 was Coach Jim Sweeney’s 8th Bulldog team, and part of an incredible run in the 1980s of dominant teams. The 1985 team ended up being the only undefeated team in the country that year, although they did have a tie with Hawaii early on in the season. Since they played in the PCAA, the Dogs didn’t end up being ranked in the AP Poll, but they did absolutely destroy the 20th ranked Bowling Green Falcons 51-7 in the California Bowl. They did appear in the final Coach’s Poll at 16th, but the last AP Poll was before bowl season back then. Let’s take a dive into the magical 1985 season and it’s team.
The 1984 season was definitely one to forget for Fresno State, as they stumbled to a 7-5 record (adjusted after the fact because UNLV forfeited a game), so optimism wasn’t high for the 1985 season. Quarterback Kevin Sweeney was back in the saddle for his junior season as he marched towards an NCAA record setting career. The offense ran through Sweeney, James Williams, and Stephen Baker. Williams was in his first season playing with the Dogs, and ran for over 1,000 yards on 179 attempts. Stephen Baker carried on the legacy of Henry Ellard, catching the ball 29 times for 884 yards, at an absurd 29yds/catch. They used this high-flying offense, and an admittedly weak schedule to have the No.1 scoring offense in college football, scoring 40 points per game. The offense also featured a player by the name of Kelly Skipper, who would go on to carve quite a name for himself as an assistant coach at both the college and NFL levels.
The 1985 season started with UNLV, the same way that the 1984 season ended. But this time, the Bulldogs won without the NCAA needing to enforce a forfeit. James Williams instantly made an impression on Bulldog fans, as he rushed for over 150 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Dogs pushed the Rebels around to a 26-6 victory. The next week, Fresno State would notch their first win over the Beavers of Oregon State. Games against the Beavers have delivered some epic contests for Bulldog fans, and this meeting was no different. Kicker Barry Belli was the MVP of the first half of the game, kicking 3 field goals to put the dogs up 9-6 at the break. Kevin Sweeney got on the highlight reels with a 96yd touchdown pass to none other than Stephen Baker the Touchdown Maker, then followed it up the very next series with a 75 yard touchdown strike to Gene Taylor, stretching the lead to 23-9. The game was also notable for Rob Webster’s two interceptions off deflected passes. The Dogs would hold on to beat the Beavers 33-24, and began to put the PCAA on notice that this team was serious.
After a rather pedestrian 59-10 win over Cal Poly, the Bulldogs would have the only blemish on their record, and it wasn’t even a loss. The rivalry game against Hawaii on October 5th, the two fought to a 24-24 tie game, made worse by the fact that Hawaii ended up only 4-6-2 on the year. It was an incredibly physical game, and would be the lowest amount the Bulldogs would score all year. That tie would also mean the Bulldogs would have to wait all the way until 2018 to have a 12 win season, even though that took a 14 game season instead of a 12 game season. The Dogs would take out their collective frustration on their next 4 opponents, dispatching SJSU, NMSU, USU, and CSU Fullerton by a collective 165-64. The biggest win came against New Mexico State, where the running game went for 350 yards, and Kevin Sweeney connected with a dozen receivers during the game.
Outside of the tie game against Hawaii, Fresno State really only had 2 close calls, and they came in back to back weeks. The first was a trip to Stockton to face off against the University of the Pacific Tigers, where a track meet broke out between the two teams, with the Bulldogs winning by a narrow 43-37 margin.
The game against Long Beach would be the tightest, but also most important game for the Bulldogs. With a 2 game lead on UNLV in the conference race, the Dogs needed to put away the 49ers if they wanted a trip to the California Bowl. Stephen Baker used his return to the LA area as a chance to truly show off, as he caught 6 passes for 230 yards, and either scored of setup 5 of Fresno State’s 6 touchdowns. In a supremely sloppy game for both squads played in seemingly a muddy back field, Fresno State managed to secure the win and the PCAA title 33-31. This was also the first undefeated conference record for the Bulldogs since the undefeated 1961 team, but that was only a 5 game conference schedule in the old College Division.
The final game of the regular season was interestingly enough, a non-conference game against the Shockers of Wichita State. The game would also mark one of the final games for Wichita State, as the Missouri Valley conference made the decision to drop football after the 1985 season because they had teams in both D-IA and D-IAA. The Shockers would run one season as an independent, before finally folding their program after the 1986 season. Even though the game was not needed for the PCAA title, the Dogs still came to play, and blew out the Shockers 47-6. This would set up the California Bowl as the Fresno State Bulldogs against the No.20 Bowling Green Falcons on December 14, 1985.
For those unaware of it, the California Bowl was a short-lived game between the MAC and the PCAA, eventually the Big West. It was usually the first bowl game of the year, and was one of the first bowls to restrict itself to cable television, then still a novelty. The game would only exist from 1981-1991, when Fresno State moved to the WAC. The Big West and MAC decided to move their bowl game to Las Vegas, creating the first Las Vegas Bowl, while the California Bowl could not find a tie-in for the game in Bulldog Stadium.
The 1985 edition of the California Bowl was the only matchup of two undefeated teams, although the 1991 game would feature two 10-1 teams. Even though they came in undefeated and nationally ranked, things did not go well for the Falcons. Fresno State would score on their first drive of the game, and never once looked back. James Williams scored on a 10 yard run, and that would be the closest the two teams would be until the end. Both Kelly Skipper and Gene Taylor scored twice, Stephen Baker scored a 40yd touchdown, and Brian McClure pitched in a safety on defense, with Anthony Mosley and Jeff Davis getting in on the scoring to bring the Bulldogs to 51 points. The Falcons did not even get on the board until the 4th quarter, when they were already down by 37 points. Fresno State would add two more touchdowns in the final quarter, and the game would affectionately become known to Fresno State fans as the Bowling Green Massacre.
That triumph in the bowl game would bring Fresno State’s record to 11 wins, 0 losses, and the 1 tie against Hawaii. The Coach’s Poll rewarded them with a 16th place ranking, which would be Fresno State’s highest ranking until the reached the Top 10 in the 2001 season. It is also their highest end of season ranking outside of their Small College Poll days in the 1960s.
As the summer goes on, I’ll go through a few more Fresno State seasons. 1989 is next on the docket, so look for that soon.