The ensuing kickoff would go out of bounds, yet for a Fresno State offense that had struggled with turnovers and missed opportunities the entire evening, a 60-yard touchdown drive seemed almost impossible.
Staring defeat in the eyes, if the Bulldogs wanted to salvage their 2010 season, it all hinged on the shoulders of senior quarterback Ryan Colburn.
"We knew what needed to be done," Colburn said about the offense's mindset before the final drive of the game.
"I knew we could play, I knew could put a drive together…we were moving the ball all day it was just a matter of big turnovers….I had a good feel for how they were playing us."
Colburn, who finished 21-of-33 for 219 yards, was sacked five times for -34 yards and lost three fumbles. But he finished with only -2 net yards rushing mainly because he decided to tuck the ball and run on the final drive instead of holding on to the ball.
"We had some shots called early in that last drive…we needed to challenge them downfield," said Colburn. But one thing was different on the final drive. "They weren't bringing pressure."
Colburn was able to scramble for eight yards on the first play. After a one-yard sack and a two-yard pass to Rashad Evans, the ‘Dogs faced a critical 4th-and-1 from their own 49 with just over a minute to play. Instead of wasting another timeout, the coaches rushed out the short yardage offense with two tight ends and three backs. But Colburn carried the ball over the right side, and after a slight hesitation, he found a small crease for a three-yard gain that gave FS a first down at the Idaho 48 with exactly one minute to play in the game.
Then at that moment, it seemed the Ryan Colburn that had led the Bulldogs to no offensive touchdowns in the last eight quarters disappeared. And the Ryan Colburn that had led Fresno State to early season wins over Cincinnati and Utah State reappeared.
He hit A.J. Johnson for an eight-yard gain. Then Colburn had his biggest run of the 2010 season. With 51 ticks left, Colburn surveyed the field and found no open receivers – he didn't take a sack – and instead of throwing the ball away, he did what he did far earlier in the season – tucked it and ran.
Some 14 seconds and 15 yards later, the ‘Dogs were in business with a 1st-and-10 at the Idaho 25 with two timeouts remaining.
"The last one we called for Jamel came from the sideline," said head coach Pat Hill. "Jamel Hamler made a great football play."
Hamler caught the ball in stride around the 15 then broke a tackle, kept his balance and spun around extending the ball to the goal line. He was called down at the one.
The ‘Dogs called their second to last timeout with 18 seconds left and sophomore running back A.J. Ellis – playing for the injured Robbie Rouse – leaped over the pile for the Bulldogs first offensive touchdown since the third quarter versus Nevada on Nov. 13.
"On the last play when we had to get it in…these guys got it done on the goal line," said Hill.
The win ensured Fresno State a bowl berth and winning season for the 11th time in 12 seasons. But it was a very ugly win.
"We made it hard on ourselves…we had some critical penalties – starting with the opening kickoff –, four turnovers, despite all of that this team was resilient enough to find a way to win," said Hill.
"The Reno and Boise games, we were reeling, we've been struggling with ourselves. I think winning a football game like that was a great remedy and great lesson for all our players. I think a team with less character would've laid down at the end."
"Well, it salvaged what was left of our season," said Colburn. "I don't think there was any question about that. It was huge for moral, for our pride, to keep us going the rest of the season."
Despite Colburn, Hamler, and Ellis, the real star of the game was the Bulldog defense. "They battled their heart out, they're the reason we stayed in that game," added Colburn.
Fresno State held Idaho to just 49 total yards and 3 points through three quarters. But Colburn and the offense could only muster two field goals but still held a commanding 13-3 lead because of linebacker Travis Brown's 30-yard interception return for a touchdown on the second play of from scrimmage in the third quarter.
"It was a little screen play…I was playing off No. 2, I just saw him blocking for the screen and I tried to trigger on it," said Brown.
"I really lost where the receiver was. I didn't know where the guy was, I looked back to the quarterback, and the ball was coming right at me."
"I thought our defense played outstanding, we held this team to 197 yards passing and I think their eighth in the country in passing offense," said Hill.
Idaho had its longest drive at the start of the fourth quarter. Aided by an early 15-yard facemask penalty by Logan Harrell, who grabbed the back of Vandal quarterback Nathan Enderle's helmet and not the actual facemask, Idaho move the ball to the FS 3 and had a 1st-and-goal. But the defense held the Vandals to field goal making the score 13-6 with 10:06 remaining in the game.
With Fresno State offense struggling to find a rhythm, Ellis broke a 33-yard on a 3rd-and-2 from the Bulldog 41. It seemed that run might seal game if the ‘Dogs could get any points on the drive with time winding down. But FS couldn't garner another first down after Ellis was stopped for a one-yard gain on 3rd-and-3 from the 19. Regardless, with 6:42 remaining in the game, Kevin Goessling's field goal gave the ‘Dogs a 16-6 lead. And for the Idaho offense that hadn't been able to get into the end zone all night, it would need two scores to tie the ball game.
Well, reminiscent of the Louisiana Tech game three weeks ago, Fresno State's two-score fourth quarter lead quickly evaporated after a kick return for a touchdown. Idaho's Justin Veltung 84-yard return for touchdown made it 16-13 in a matter of seconds. While Veltung's return was partly a result of a poor kick, a main contributor was the field condition.
"That field is very bad field right now as far as footing and surface and it will be bad again next week," said Hill. "It's just very slippery. That's a big part of the game. The field conditions were tough tonight."
"Special teams is the worse…especially on kick return they have so much room to work around you and you just get one move and they're by you and you're slipping on your face," said Brown. "The track was tough but we got to be able to play through that."
But the offense still had a chance to ice the game with a few first downs. It didn't happen. Fresno State had two 3-and-outs on Saturday night, both occurred in the fourth quarter, including after Veltung's touchdown.
The Bulldogs came out passing and Colburn misfired on two passes that surround an Ellis one-yard run on second down. FS took only a minute off the clock, and the Vandals responded with a 7-play, 71-yard drive capped by Jackson's go-ahead touchdown.
But the Bulldog offense wasn't completely futile. They moved the ball into Idaho territory nine of 11 drives and punted just twice. But turnovers and kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns made it a much closer game. They must shore up those issues if they expect to hang with Illinois Friday on senior night.
"The QB-center exchange, there is no excuse for that," Colburn said of his third fumble. "Bottom line, we can't have that many turnovers."
"We had three turnovers inside the 30, this week we blundered some opportunities," said Hill.
"Probably our best offensive game was the loss to Nevada as far as complete offense. We have been struggling. The passing game was good early in the season, and the running game got good midway through the season, we never really put the two together except the game against Reno.
"Four turnovers takes away possessions…most of the year we've been hamming and egging it on offense as far as never being consistent in both phases."
But on that final drive, the offense and team came together.
"We knew in the heat of the moment, they'd get it done and find a way to pull through," Brown said.
And on a short week will the 6-5 Illini looming in front a national TV audience on ESPN2, that game-winning drive just might further the Bulldogs' confidence to pull out another win over the Big 10 opponent.
"I think it boosts it a lot," said Brown. "It will give us a boost."
For Fresno State fans, they hope so.
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