Bowling for Validation
Jan. 27, 2000
FRESNO, Calif. - It started at the Western Athletic Conference's media day. It was there Fresno State head coach Pat Hill declared to all who would listen they would compete for the WAC title this year. He said it to radio stations. He said to television stations. He said it to newspaper writers. He told people he said it.
But given that the Bulldogs had finished fourth in the WAC's Pacific Division the year prior and were 5-6 overall, Hill's remarks weren't paid much attention at the time. But along came a near-miss at UCLA, followed by an emotional overtime victory over TCU and a blowout win against Colorado State, and suddenly, Fresno State was indeed competing.
Fast forward to November. The Bulldogs are not only competing, they are leading the conference race. It came down to a Nov. 20 showdown at Bulldog Stadium with the rival San Jose State Spartans to decide not only if Fresno State would win the WAC but if they would go to the EA Sports Las Vegas Bowl. The result - a 63-12 victory over San Jose State, followed by an on-field presentation of the WAC Championship trophy and an invitation to play in the Las Vegas Bowl, the Bulldogs' first bowl game since the 1993 Aloha Bowl.
Fresno State got the season started with a 34-6 win over Portland State. But they then traveled to Corvallis, Ore., to play Oregon State. The Beavers showed why they were one of the better teams in the Pac-10 this year, dispatching Fresno State 46-23. Hill later declared the Beavers as the best team FS played this year.
After falling to Oregon State, the Bulldogs were on a bus to play defending Pac-10 champion UCLA at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins were returning eight players who had been suspended for their first two games, but Fresno State was ready. Midway through the third quarter, Vince Branstetter caught a Volek pass for a touchdown, giving Fresno State a 21-20 lead. But UCLA showed the form which it displayed on its way to the 1999 Rose Bowl, storming back to defeat the Bulldogs with a touchdown late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter on its way to a 35-21 victory.
The toughness and ability to bounce back Fresno State displayed all year was evident the next week, when the Bulldogs faced the first of a seemingly endless run of must-win games. On the road for the third consecutive week, Fresno State took on a Nevada team it had lost to in heartbreaking fashion the year before. But this was a different year and a different team. The Bulldogs jumped ahead early and ended up cruising to a 49-24 win. Next followed perhaps the year's most exciting game - a 26-19 overtime victory over preseason WAC favorite TCU followed by a 44-13 dismantling of Mountain West co-champion Colorado State. The Bulldogs were clicking on all cylinders. They were playing winless SMU the following week in a nationally televised game. They were confident. They were as high as a team could be.
Then they were as low as a team could be. A stunning 24-14 loss at SMU saw to that. In what Hill called the most disappointing loss of the season, the Mustangs dominated Fresno State, outrushing the Bulldogs 194-65. The team returned to Fresno a shocked bunch. And a suddenly resurgent UTEP team was on the horizon. And so was the play of the year.
It seemed like it took a lot longer than it did. In actuality, the play lasted only a couple of seconds. But the ripple effect is still in effect. It is the only play from the UTEP-Fresno State game that matters. Giachino Chiaramonte blasted UTEP's Elize Johnson at the 1-yard line to thwart a Miner two-point conversion attempt that would have given UTEP a victory. The Bulldogs were 2-1 in the WAC and had their confidence back.
A hard-fought, grind-it-out 28-14 victory on the road at Tulsa followed. Fresno State was 6-3 and 3-1 in the WAC. Then FS's ability to stop the run came into play, limited Rice, one of the nation's best rushing teams, to a season-low 39 yards in a 47-18 drubbing. Fresno State now controlled its own destiny in the race for the WAC title.
But Hawai'i put a bump in the road for the Bulldogs. A gripping comeback by Fresno State in the fourth quarter sent the game into overtime, but Hawai'i prevailed 31-24 in double overtime. A weary but determined Fresno State team returned to the mainland to set its sights on rival San Jose State and a chance at claiming a piece of the WAC championship, which it hadn't done since 1993.
What followed the Hawai'i loss was a hard, emotional week of practice that included Senior Tackle, the final practice before the SJSU game. When the Bulldogs came down the ramp at Bulldog Stadium before the game, the prize of victory was clear - a trip to the EA Sports Las Vegas Bowl.
And it was over immediately. Fresno State led 21-0 after one quarter and 35-6 at the half. It ended up 63-12. The overall record was 8-4, good enough to be the most wins since 1993. The conference record was 5-2, good enough for a share of the WAC title. And the result was a berth in the EA Sports Las Vegas bowl, good enough to meet Hill's expectations.