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Column: Despite 8-4 record, Fresno State’s football season is a disappointment after late season collapse

The+Fresno+State+football+team+plays+against+New+Mexico+at+Valley+Childrens+Stadium+on+Nov.+18.
Jacqueline Carrillo/The Collegian
The Fresno State football team plays against New Mexico at Valley Children’s Stadium on Nov. 18.

Nine games into the season, the Fresno State football team was 8-1 overall, 4-1 in the Mountain West and coming off wins against two upper-echelon Mountain West teams: University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Boise State. The team appeared destined to make it to the Mountain West Championship Game for its second-straight season. 

Even after the 42-18 loss to San Jose State, the Bulldogs still had control of potentially making it to the championship if they had won their next two games against two of the bottom teams in the standings.

Both New Mexico and San Diego State came into the games against Fresno State with only one win in conference play. 

With two very beatable opponents, the Bulldogs should’ve punched their ticket to the title game easily. 

That did not happen because Fresno State lost both games in an uninspiring fashion. 

What was once a very promising season turned into a season of disappointment and mediocrity for the ‘Dogs. 

While 8-4 is still a good record and a season that many teams would be happy with, Fresno State’s season was different. The record is misleading due to the feeble non-conference strength of schedule. 

The combined overall record from the four teams on Fresno State’s non-conference schedule this season ended up being 12-35. 

Out of the 133 teams in the FBS, Fresno State ranked 121st in the strength of schedule and was 10th in the Mountain West, only ahead of Colorado State and Air Force, who also had a late-season collapse and ended the season on a four-game losing streak.

Winning on the road against a Big Ten school is a complex task, regardless of the opponent. Purdue was coming off an appearance in the Big Ten championship game last season. 

Although still impressive, the 39-35 win against the Boilermakers carried less weight as the season went on and they struggled, finishing 4-8.

Next on the schedule was Eastern Washington. While there is no such thing as a bad win in sports, this was easily the sloppiest win of the season as Fresno State eked out a 34-31 win in double-overtime. 

Unlike Purdue, this win was viewed as rough from the beginning. The Eagles were coming off of a 3-8 season and are an FCS opponent, a division lower than the FBS. The Eagles had another poor season this year, finishing 4-7.

Their next win was the most impressive of the non-conference schedule. Once again, the ‘Dogs went on the road and beat a Power 5 school, this time beating Arizona State 29-0 and forcing eight turnovers, including three interceptions from cornerback Carlton Johnson. 

The Sun Devils finished the season at 3-9 but played a lot of close games, including a 15-7 loss to Washington, currently ranked third in the AP Poll

The Bulldogs’ next game was against Kent State. The game was a complete domination as the ‘Dogs won 63-10. Kent State also had an awful season, finishing 1-11.

At the time, Fresno State deserved the hype. The Bulldogs had ended last season on a nine-game winning streak and extended it to 13 after the four wins. With the 4-0 start, Fresno State was deservedly ranked 25th in the Week 5 AP Poll.

Just like the 8-4 record, Fresno State’s stats were also boosted by the weak non-conference schedule on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Mikey Keene had a fantastic start to the season. After the four games, Keene had a 67.5 completion percentage, a 12-2 touchdown to interception ratio and a 151.4 rating. 

In conference play, Keene battled with injuries and inconsistencies. Although he was still accurate with a 64.5 completion percentage, the other stats dropped off. His TD/INT ratio was just 9-7 and his rating dropped down to 124.8, ranking seventh in the conference. 

When Keene was injured, backup Logan Fife filled in. Last season Fife struggled with turnovers despite completing 70% of his passes. This season, Fife completed just 56.8%. He threw three touchdowns and two interceptions in conference games. Fife had a nearly identical rating to Keene with 123.1. 

The quarterback struggles directly correlated with the dropoff in receiving production. After the first four games, wide receiver Erik Brooks looked like he was ready to emerge as a star and one of the best receivers in the Mountain West. 

Over the first four games, Brooks averaged eight receptions, 112 yards and a touchdown per game. In the eight conference games, he averaged just three receptions, 33 yards and scored just one touchdown.

The two leading receivers for the ‘Dogs in conference play were Mac Dalena and Jalen Moss. Dalena ranked 8th in the Mountain West with 4.3 receptions per game, and Moss ranked 10th with 52.3 yards per game. 

While both are solid wide receivers, neither should be counted on to be the primary weapon on pass-friendly offenses like Fresno State. 

The ‘Dogs ranked 9th in the conference in pass efficiency at 125.0. The only reason why the number is higher than both Keene and Fife’s totals is because wide receiver Jaelen Gill threw a touchdown pass on a trick play in the game against Utah State.

One of the lone bright spots for the Bulldogs’ offense was running back Malik Sherrod. 

Sherrod ranked 5th in the conference with 93.3 yards a game. The running game wasn’t the only spot Sherrod shined. He was also a kickoff returner and had Fresno State’s first kickoff return touchdown since 2008 when he scored on a 95 yard return against Boise State. 

Due to his contributions in the return game and on the ground, Sherrod led the Mountain West in all-purpose yards with 1154. 

With the often stagnant passing game, it’s fair to wonder why Fresno State didn’t lean more on the run game at times. Only Hawaii had fewer rushing attempts than Fresno State’s 203. 

The defense was also inconsistent for much of Mountain West play. 

The pass defense was middle of the pack. They were tied for the conference lead with San Jose State with 10 forced interceptions. However, they gave up the most passing touchdowns with 15 allowed. 

On the ground is where the defense really struggled, especially late in the season. In their last three games, the Bulldogs’ run defense allowed 313 yards to the Spartans, 345 to the Lobos and 226 to the Aztecs. 

These three games were the ones the ‘Dogs allowed the most rushing yards on for the season. 

The result of all this ended up being a 4-4 record in the Mountain West and a sixth-place finish. 

Even with the season being a disappointment, there were some bright spots. Fresno State beat both Mountain West championship game participants in back-to-back weeks, beating UNLV 31-24 and Boise State 37-30. However, after the last three games, those wins seem like a completely different team in terms of how the ‘Dogs played.

Point differential is a good indicator of how dominant a team really is and if they’re better than their record suggests. In the eight conference games, Fresno State finished with a -15 point differential which means that Fresno State’s record is right around where it should be. 

Finishing in sixth seemed almost impossible after all the hype after beating Boise State and improving to 4-1 in the conference. Yet that’s what happened. The ‘Dogs lost games they should’ve won and didn’t show up against San Jose State. 

The season is still ongoing for Fresno State, as they will still be playing in a bowl game. It is currently unknown who and where the ‘Dogs will play. 

Regardless of the result, Fresno State has several questions to address this offseason after a poor finish to a once promising season. 

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