Last night Fresno State fell behind a fired up Wyoming team 10-0 in the first quarter. Wyoming was able to stop Fresno State early and often and seemed to be playing with a level of energy that Fresno State could not match. Bulldog fans, welcome to the role of the favorite. Every team that takes the field against Fresno State from this point on will treat this game as their bowl game. Not only is Fresno State ranked #14 in the BCS, but they are also rivals to two of the final three teams they will face this season (if they do indeed face Boise in the Mountain West Conference championship game.) What this means is something far different than most Bulldog fans have come to expect. Fresno State will now have to play the role of the team that survives an early onslaught from nearly every team they play for the remainder of the season and here is why.
According to the voters (as well as Bulldog fans) Fresno State should win their final three games and be eligible for a BCS game. However, teams such as San Jose State, New Mexico, and Boise State want nothing more than to ruin this chance for the Bulldogs. In reality the Bulldogs appearance in a BCS game would only help the conference as the game itself would bring in a large amount of money for the conference to share. While conference money is great, it cannot replace the feeling of knocking off a highly ranked team while subsequently ending their dream season. This is exactly what the final three teams on the Bulldogs schedule will set out to do. With that comes a different level of play on the football field. What took place in Wyoming last night is a perfect example as to what may happen early in Fresno State’s final three games. In two weeks Fresno State will face New Mexico at home on senior night. New Mexico will come out fired up and will have a level of energy similar to Wyoming’s at the start of their game with Fresno State. New Mexico’s players will be flying all over the field making plays that they normally would not to begin the game. Fresno State’s job will be to weather the storm and take New Mexico out of their game early. Here is how the Bulldogs can do such a thing.
Against Wyoming the Bulldogs were able to mount a comeback and take a 14-10 lead into halftime. While it was important to come back prior to halftime, that is not where this game was won. To begin the second half Fresno State was forced to start from its own four yard line due to a mental mistake made by the Bulldogs kick returner. What ensued changed not only the pace of the game with Wyoming, but the outcome as well. Fresno State went on a 13 play drive that covered 96 yards and took nearly five minutes to complete. Fresno State ran the ball at a rate that had not been seen up to the point in the season during the drive. The Bulldogs showed Wyoming that they were the more dominant team during this five minute stretch. Once Fresno State found the end zone and took a 21-10 lead the game was over. Maybe as Bulldog fans most of us held our collective breath for the remaining quarter and a half, but Fresno State had put the game away with one drive. Wyoming’s energy had disappeared. The Cowboys could not feed off of their crowd anymore as they had allowed their fans to begin to doubt if they had a chance to win the game. In turn the Bulldogs defense began pressuring Smith every play. Smith may have only been sacked one time, but he was pressured so often in the second half that he made less throws flat footed in the pocket than he did on the run. This, Bulldog fans, is exactly what Fresno State will need to do in order to take control of their final three games.
Fresno State’s game against Wyoming reminded me of something I have seen in the past with great sports teams. During Michael Jordan’s championship years in Chicago it was common for the Bulls to take the court in a pivotal playoff game on the road, allow the home team to race out to a 10-15 point lead firing up the crowd, only to have Jordan and the Bulls come back and win the game. It was almost as if the Bulls understood what it took to play as the favorite. As the favorite you are required to weather the storm that hits you the minute you step on the field. As the favorite you have to be able to understand that other teams will be playing at 110% at the start of the game. Opposing teams will pull out all stops as they know this is their biggest game of the season. As the favorite Fresno State will have to understand that it is ok to fall behind early. New Mexico, San Jose State, and Boise State are not as talented nor as complete of a team as the Bulldogs are this season. But that does not mean these three teams do not have the talent to race out to an early lead on the Bulldogs.
Bulldog fans for the first time in their history are headed into a final month of football that they have never experienced. Fresno State was prematurely deemed the original BCS buster in 2001 because of their 6-0 start. Unfortunately schools like Utah, TCU, and Boise State took that title away from the Bulldogs. 2013 is the last year the BCS will have a system in place that would allow a team such as Fresno State to crash the party and play in a game like the Fiesta Bowl. If Fresno State is able to weather the storm at the beginning of each of their remaining three games they will finish the season 12-0. In the end it comes down to the ability to take control of the game early. While many would have liked to the Bulldogs to show they were the superior team from the first snap against Wyoming that is something that even the best of the best are not able to do.
Playing as the favorite is something few teams do well. Underdogs play loose, have little to lose, and understand they are not supposed to win the game. Favorites are not awarded such a luxury. Fresno State for the first time in the BCS era controls its own destiny in its fight to gain a BCS bowl birth this late into the season. The difference will be made in how the Bulldogs react to the level of energy that their opponents bring. Sometimes the beginning of a football game tells the viewer all that is needed to know with respect to who will win the game. Last night in Laramie the Bulldogs response to Wyoming’s fast start showed that this Bulldog team is not only ready for its final push to the BCS, but that it also understands as a team what it means to play as the favorite.