BOISE, Idaho, Dec. 27 -- Moments after his team's thrilling 37-34 overtime upset of No. 18 Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl on Monday, Fresno State Coach Pat Hill stood inside Bronco Stadium talking about what the victory would mean for his program. "Fresno State can play with anybody," Hill said. "I've been saying that for a long time. But people in this country don't want to admit there are other teams that can play. I was anxious to see how we matched up against an outstanding team."
Hill may have given the Cavaliers too much credit. For the fourth time this season, Virginia was manhandled by an opponent, allowing a season-high 222 rushing yards and five touchdown passes in its fourth loss in seven games. The Cavaliers, who were ranked No. 6 nationally after winning their first five games, will be mostly remembered as a team that won against opponents they should have beaten, but folded when they were challenged.
Virginia's Heath Miller is brought down by Fresno's James Sanders, left, and Kyle Goodman.
(Douglas C. Pizac - AP)
"We certainly would have liked to have played a lot better," Coach Al Groh said. "I'm certainly disappointed in the result, disappointed in ourselves and disappointed in a lot of people."
Certainly, none of Virginia's other losses was as disappointing as its last game. The Cavaliers (8-4) scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and led 21-7 until the final play of the first half. After blowing that lead and going ahead 31-24 with about 6 1/2 minutes remaining, Virginia allowed the game-tying touchdown with 11 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, the Cavaliers got a field goal, then Fresno State threw the game-winning touchdown pass on its first play.
"We certainly had plenty of opportunities," Groh said. "We could have substantially increased the lead but we weren't up to doing that. . . . Our problem was not the 34 points that we got; our problem was the 37 we gave up."
Even though Virginia went away from its 3-4 defensive alignment, often putting eight players near the line of scrimmage, the Bulldogs seemingly ran at will. After the Cavaliers went ahead 31-24 on Wali Lundy's 20-yard touchdown run with 6 minutes 20 seconds left, Fresno State took over at its 17 and ran the ball down the field.
The Bulldogs (9-3) used 11 plays to drive to the Virginia 10, where they faced third down and five. After Fresno State called its last timeout, quarterback Paul Pinegar threw a seven-yard pass to tight end Duncan Reid with 30 seconds left. On first down and goal, Pinegar spiked the ball to stop the clock with 28 seconds left. On second down, he threw to Jaron Fairman on the right side of the end zone but his throw was too high. On third down, Cavaliers defensive end Chris Johnson rushed up the middle, forcing Pinegar to throw the ball out of the end zone with 19 seconds left.
Needing to make only one defensive stop on fourth down, the Cavaliers failed miserably. Pinegar took the snap and rolled to his right. He threw in the back of the end zone for Fairman, who beat cornerback Marcus Hamilton for a three-yard touchdown catch. Television replays showed Fairman ran out of bounds and then came back into the end zone, which should have made him an ineligible receiver. But officials didn't make the call, and Brett Visintainer's extra point tied the game at 31 with 11 seconds remaining.
"I didn't see anything," Hamilton said. "I was face-guarding my man. I felt like I was on him. . . . I don't want to make excuses. He caught the ball and it was a touchdown."
After throwing two incomplete passes to end regulation, Virginia lost the coin toss in overtime and went on offense at the Fresno State 25. On first down, Lundy ran for 17 yards up the middle. On first down and goal, Lundy was stopped for a two-yard gain, then quarterback Marques Hagans scrambled for a two-yard loss on second down. On third down and goal, Hagans threw in the back of the end zone for senior Michael McGrew, but he caught the ball out of bounds. The Cavaliers settled for Connor Hughes's 26-yard field goal, making it 34-31.
Fresno State took over and on its first play, Pinegar threw a pass down the left hash mark for tight end Stephen Spach, who caught the ball at about the 9 and dragged two defenders into the end zone. "We ought to be able to cover a post pass when we know it's a post pass situation," Groh said.
Fresno State's players stormed the field and celebrated another bowl win over a team from a bigger conference -- the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech and UCLA in the last two Silicon Valley Football Classics in San Jose.
Pinegar completed 23 of 36 passes for 235 yards and five touchdowns and was named the game's most valuable player. Hagans played well, completing 18 of 30 passes for 162 yards and one touchdown, while running seven times for 87 yards and one score.
But once again, the Cavaliers were left pondering what could have been, as well as what will be. With a veteran-laden team that included three all-Americans -- guard Elton Brown, tight end Heath Miller and linebacker Ahmad Brooks -- the Cavaliers failed to stay in the ACC hunt while powers Florida State and Miami struggled. With Brown and seven other senior starters leaving, and Miller, Brooks, tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and linebacker Darryl Blackstock considering early entry into the NFL draft, Virginia isn't sure what its future holds.
"We just couldn't get over that hump -- the transition from being a good team to being a great team," Brown said. "We won eight games. I don't think it's a lost cause. A lot of young players got better and played some key roles. They took some steps forward and they're getting better."
Against Fresno State, at least, the Cavaliers took another big step back.