Fresno State was dead in the water five weeks into the season, coming off a 40-20 loss to Boise State and had dropped to 1-4.
Eight games later, the Bulldogs fought all the way back – not losing a single game – to avenge the loss to the Broncos and celebrated a 28-16 Mountain West Championship on the blue turf on Saturday.
“We’ve come a long way since the first part of the year where a lot of people probably didn’t believe in us, but the kids in the locker room did and the staff did.,” Head Coach Jeff Tedford said after the game. “Nothing more fitting to end it like we did tonight. I’m just really proud of all these guys, the work that they put in, the commitment that they make on a daily basis, the belief that they have, the perseverance that they’ve shown over the year. It’s just so rewarding to see them so happy.”
Tedford said the Bulldogs played complementary football, crediting the defense and special teams for coming up big when the offense struggled to move the ball for extended periods of the game.
Fresno State’s complementary football was not more evident than the end of the second quarter and into the third, starting with a 70-yard punt return from wide receiver Nikko Remigio for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 7-3 lead with under four minutes left in the first half.
Following the punt return on Boise State’s ensuing drive, Fresno State cornerback Cam Lockridge grabbed his first of two interceptions to quickly give the ‘Dogs the ball back.
Fresno State used that momentum to score on a rushing touchdown by running back Jordan Mims.
The Bulldogs gave up a second field goal to the Broncos before halftime, but they continued to play aggressive defense didn’t allow the Broncos to find the end zone until late in the fourth quarter.
Fresno State held the Broncos to 5-17 on third down and stopped Boise State’s lone fourth down attempt. The defense also only allowed Boise State to get to the red zone once all night – late in the fourth quarter.
“I thought complementary football was there tonight,” Tedford said. “We really struggled in the third quarter offensively. We got behind the sticks. We were backed up, poor field position, and the defense stiffened up and didn’t let them in the end zone.”
The ‘Dogs also were gifted a second chance in the third quarter which helped keep the momentum going their way. Punting on 4th and 15 from the Bulldogs’ 45-yard line, Boise State committed a roughing the kicker penalty against Fresno State punter Carson King.
That gifted Fresno State a first down, and a few plays later quarterback Jake Haener hit wide receiver Zane Pope for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
“I think special teams obviously played a huge factor in the game tonight from start to finish. And obviously when you get a second chance like that when you’re 4th and 15 at about midfield and you can get inside their territory and have an opportunity to get more points in a critical championship game, that’s always huge,” Haener said.
“You got to take advantage of those opportunities when they give them to you, and I definitely felt the momentum shift. I kind of just told the guys in that moment you’ve got to just relax and just try to take advantage of what they’re giving us right now. Obviously we executed and got some points on the board.”
Fresno State’s strong defensive performance came largely without star defensive end David Perales, who suffered an ankle injury last week against Wyoming and only came in for a handful of plays on Saturday.
Tedford said Perales was devastated that he was not healthy for the championship game, but the difficulty of rehabbing his ankle injury in just one week was not feasible.
While the offense moved slowly at times and only converted 5 of 15 third down attempts, Fresno State did not turn the ball over once, and Haener was honored as the offensive player of the game, to go along with Lockridge as the defensive player of the game.
For Haener, who is wrapping up his career as a Bulldog after three years as the starting quarterback, Saturday’s win was a special one.
“This is the golden boy of the conference, one of the premier teams in the conference,” Haener said. “To come up here against one of our biggest rivals, probably if not our biggest rival in the conference, yeah it definitely means more.”