There comes a time in most seasons that a team faces adversity – where its back is against the wall – a must-win situation that will make or break its season.
For Fresno State, that time has come in various situations over the course of head coach Pat Hill’s 15 years. Whether it was upsetting No. 17 Air Force on the road to avoid a 2-5 start in 1997 to knocking down conference favorite BYU in 1998 to avoid a 0-4 start. Beating TCU in overtime in 1999 to start WAC play 1-0 and avoid a 2-3 start to defeating Cal in 2000 to avoid a 0-3 start after consecutive losses to Ohio State and UCLA to give Hill his first win against a BCS program, the Bulldogs have stepped up for some big wins against quality teams in tough situations.
But the ‘Dogs have also had their backs against the wall against much lesser competition.
In consecutive seasons, Fresno State recorded a 31-28 win over Rice in 2002 and 2003 to avoid a 1-4 and 3-5 start, respectively. In 2004, the Bulldogs beat SMU 42-0 to avoid a 3-4 start. In all three years, the Bulldogs rebounded to win nine games and bowl wins over BCS teams.
During Monday’s press conference, Hill referenced that he’s been here before referring to the ‘Dogs tough start through its first six games. He believes this year’s team is resilient, not like the 2006 bunch that threw in the towel after a 1-4 start.
“Our backs are against the wall,” said Hill. “We’ve been in that position before. We’ve had teams that responded in most cases. And we had that team in ’06 that didn’t respond.
“It was a lack of effort [in 2006]. We did lose confidence. There’s a big difference between that team and this team. That team was a very senior laden football team. We lost that team.”
Hill changed things after the 1-4 start in 2006. He removed many of the senior starters and inserted a bunch of younger players during their toughest stretch of games versus nationally ranked teams Hawaii, LSU, and Boise State. While the ‘Dogs did lose by 31, 32, and 24 points, respectively, none resembled the 57-7 massacre suffered last week against the Broncos.
“This team is very hungry,” said Hill. “They are looking for answers.
“This is a team that I said from the beginning was a work in progress.”
But Hill is wrong. He has never been in a situation quite like this – if he expects the 2011 team to finish above .500.
Besides the 1-7 start in 2006, Hill has started 2-4 or worse two other times – his first two years at Fresno State. All three seasons ended with no bowl game let alone a winning season.
“We have not met our expectations,” Hill added.
And those expectations, we assume, are to win a WAC title and play in its 12th bowl game in 13 years.
In order to meet those, the Bulldogs will have to win at least five of its last seven games. FS will likely be an underdog in four of those seven games starting with Saturday’s tilt with Utah State.
“It’s going to be a battle,” said Hill. “We are going to have to play lights out.”
The Aggies enter just 2-3 on the season but are coming off a 63-19 pounding of Wyoming. Their three losses could have easily been wins. They held a 10-point lead in the final two minutes at Auburn in the season opener. They lost in double overtime to Colorado State, and they gave up a game-winning touchdown to BYU with 11 seconds remaining in the game in Provo.
Utah State has not won more than four games since finishing 5-7 in 2000 as a member of the Big West. Utah State is not a top 25 team but is a just a few plays from being 5-0. Utah State is not a traditional power. Utah State is not a Bulldogs rival. Above all Utah State is perceived as a lesser team in the lowly WAC despite playing the ‘Dogs tough in their last five meetings.
How does Hill get his team up for this contest considering the ‘Dogs laid an egg versus the No. 5 team last week?
This is arguably the biggest game in Hill’s 15 years for many reasons. But do the players understand what’s at stake?
A loss on Saturday puts the ‘Dogs chances of winning the WAC and finishing above .500 on the backburner. Not to mention turning the heat up a notch on Hill’s seat.
The Aggies may be the best team the conference has in 2011.
Outside of playing in Fresno, Utah State hosts Nevada and play at Hawaii. The Warriors already won at Louisiana Tech and host the Bulldogs as well but must travel to Reno in November. The Wolf Pack have FS, UH, La. Tech, and Idaho at home – the four top WAC teams in the preseason – but the game in Logan gives the Aggies a very good chance to challenge for a piece of the WAC crown if they can win at Fresno State.
The Aggies led 27-24 in the fourth quarter the last time these teams played in Bulldog Stadium. The Aggies upset the 26-point favorite Bulldogs in 2006. Kevin Goessling had to make a 58-yard field goal for the ‘Dogs to beat the Aggies in 2008. Fresno State didn’t pull away from USU until the fourth quarter last year. The games have been close however; none of those teams was as good as the 2011 Aggies.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is the real deal. He can hurt Fresno State with his arm and his legs. Running Robert Turbin is a big bruising back that could abuse the ‘Dogs for four quarters. And Bobby Wagner leads an aggressive USU defense that plays at a high level.
“This team is going to respond,” said Hill. “We’re going to play very hard. Playing hard doesn’t guarantee success. You got to play hard, got to play smart, and you got to win. That’s what we got to do this weekend.”
But Fresno State’s A-game still may not be enough to pull out the win. And fingers crossed if the Bulldogs come out flat.
Make it or break it, the season comes down to this game.
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