Bulldogs looking to cap off resurgent season
In their first bowl game since 2014, the Fresno State Bulldogs will face the Houston Cougars Sunday in the Hawai’i Bowl.
It marks the first football game between the two schools and each team’s third appearance at a bowl game in Hawaii. The Bulldogs have not won a bowl game since 2007, losing six straight.
In the same time frame, the Cougars are 4-4 in bowl games, though they lost against the Mountain West Conference champions San Diego State last year in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Before this season
The Fresno State Bulldogs have had mixed success over the the last six seasons.
In 2012 and 2013, then-head coach Tim DeRuyter and quarterback Derek Carr led the team to back to back conference championships, but when Carr graduated and moved on to the NFL, Fresno struggled to find a good replacement.
DeRuyter was fired after the team failed to put together a winning season for the next three years. Jeff Tedford was hired as his replacement last December.
How they got here
The Bulldogs’ season started off with a win over FCS team Incarnate Word 66-0, but their next game in Tuscaloosa against No. 1 Alabama ended in a 41-10 blowout loss. For their next game, they went up the West Coast to play No. 6 Washington, ending in a 16-48 loss.
Once conference games started, Fresno State found its form and steamrolled the other MWC teams. The Bulldogs earned wins at home against Nevada 41-21, away versus San Jose State 27-10, home against New Mexico 38-0, and away at San Diego State 27-3 before stalling at home against the UNLV Rebels 16-26.
After that game, the Bulldogs slowed but did not stop as they defeated BYU 20-13. Then they returned to conference play, winning at Hawaii 31-21, at Wyoming 13-7, and at home versus the Boise State Broncos 28-17 to close out the regular season. Their win against Boise State earned the Bulldogs the West Division and a spot in the conference championship game.
They would, however, lose the championship 14-17 in a rematch with Boise State. The Broncos moved on to win the Las Vegas Bowl versus Oregon, while the Bulldogs were assigned to face the Cougars in Honolulu.
Players to watch
Leading the Bulldogs’ offense has been junior quarterback Marcus McMaryion and junior wide receiver KeeSean Johnson.
McMaryion started the season as the backup quarterback to sophomore Chason Virgil, but after the Washington game, Virgil was benched.
The new quarterback went 24-for-32 for 296 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Nevada in his first start for Fresno and has been the starter since.
McMaryion’s favorite target this year has been Johnson, who is third in receiving yards (918), touchdowns (8), and receptions (69) in the Mountain West this season. Johnson earned All-MWC second team honors alongside offensive lineman Aaron Mitchell and kicker Jimmy Camacho.
The centerpiece of this team is its strong and balanced defense. Fresno State is second in sacks (32), fourth in turnovers (19), and second in yards allowed per game (319) in the MWC.
Sophomore All-MWC first team linebacker Jeffrey Allison leads the defense in tackles with 113, fourth in the MWC.
Senior defensive linemen Malik Forrester and Tobenna Okeke, All-MWC second team, have five sacks each, tied seventh in the MWC.
Sophomore defensive back Jaron Bryant leads the team in interceptions with three, fifth in the MWC.
No matter the result of the bowl game, Fresno State’s year has been night and day from its 1-11 2016 season. With so many underclassmen stars, the Bulldogs are poised to challenge for the MWC title again next year.