Archive for Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Fresno State steals fans’ hearts

Everybody loves when underdog tackles powerhouse in college football

September 11, 2001

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It seems to be ingrained in America's sporting soul. Just about everyone loves it when the little guy rises to rattle the cage of the powers that be.

That's why Fresno State is the biggest story in college football this season.

The Bulldogs further legitimized their claim as a national force with a 32-20 win at Wisconsin on Saturday. The Badgers hadn't lost a nonconference game at home in three years, and they were 14-2-2 at Camp Randall Stadium in the last three seasons.

In their first two games, the Bulldogs won at Colorado and then stunned Oregon State, a preseason top 10 team that humiliated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-9.

"We knew all along we had a good team," Bulldogs quarterback David Carr said. "Now everyone else does, too."

For several reasons, recognition comes hard for schools like Fresno State. The Bulldogs don't play in one of the so-called power conferences. They're in the Western Athletic Conference, an obscure league that makes no geographic sense and has had a different number of teams in each of the last four years.

The conference went from 16 members in 1998 to eight in '99 to nine in 2000. Before this season, TCU bolted for the Conference USA while Louisiana Tech and Boise State joined, bringing the number to 10. In its preseason college football issue, the Sporting News ranked the WAC 10th out of 11 conferences.

The Bulldogs get little television exposure, and they escape the attention of Eastern pollsters because they're in the Pacific time zone.

Despite wins over Colorado and Oregon State, Fresno State wasn't ranked among the top 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll until Sunday. They are now 15th in the coaches' poll, 11th in the Associated Press poll. One voter in each gave the Bulldogs a first-place vote.

But now that they've cleared the roughest part of their schedule, the Bulldogs may have the best chance of any team in the country to go undefeated. They have 10 games remaining, and they'll be favored in each one. The most difficult will come on the road against Colorado State and Hawaii.

It will be fascinating to see how high the Bulldogs can rise in the BCS standings, the first of which will be released in October. According to BCS guidelines, a team from the WAC needs to finish no lower than No. 6 in the BCS standings to qualify for one of its four bowl games. Strength of schedule is a component in the complex BCS standing formula. So are the polls. The top two teams in the final BCS standing will play for No. 1 in the Rose Bowl.

Sometimes, teams that pop out of nowhere do so with gimmicky offenses. Not so at Fresno State, where fifth-year coach Pat Hill has built a hard-nosed team that relies heavily on defensive speed, special teams, and the running game.

Against Wisconsin, Fresno State scored 16 points in 2 minutes. The big play was a 96-yard kickoff return by flanker Bernard Berrian, who amassed 300 all-purpose yards. Carr was 22 for 38 for 240 yards and two TDs. But it was Fresno State's defense, which refused to be bullied by Wisconsin's massive offensive line, that fueled the win. So if the Bulldogs finish 13-0, and there is a team with a loss playing for No. 1, the howls coming out of the Silicon Valley will be justified.

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