Fresno State 27,
Boise State 7
Southern California is almost certainly the most significant game on the schedules of all of its opponents. But at Fresno State, which visits USC next week, the game that fans and players have most eyed since August occurred Thursday night against a school that was not even a Division I-A program a decade ago.
The matchup of non-Bowl Championship Series heavyweights was one sided, as Fresno State outscored Boise State, 27-7, in what Fresno Coach Pat Hill had called the most important home game of his nine-year career. The memory of the victory, which put Fresno in prime position to win the Western Athletic Conference title for the first time since 1999, will linger at least as long as anything that unfolds Nov. 19, when Fresno clashes with the two-time defending national champion Trojans in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"This is the biggest win of my life," said Fresno wide receiver Paul Williams, who scored two touchdowns.
The 20th-ranked Bulldogs (8-1) have long been touted as BCS busters, a mid-major program that will tangle with anyone, anytime and knock off their share of power schools. This decade they have defeated BCS schools such as UCLA, Wisconsin, Oregon State, Colorado and Kansas State, but fell short against rank-and-file conference schools.
The source of considerable angst for Hill, his players and Fresno's fans had been Boise State, which had beaten Fresno State in all four meetings since 2001. The Broncos (7-3) entered Thursday's game having won three consecutive WAC titles and 31 straight conference games.
"To get that monkey off our backs, that was big," said running back Wendell Mathis, who rushed for 121 yards. "This was a trophy game for us."
While a Fresno victory against the Trojans would mean more for the national title picture, Thursday was the game the Bulldogs could least afford to lose. Few associated with either program can forget 2001, when Fresno's impressive 6-0 start under quarterback David Carr was offset by a mid-season loss to Boise State. The Broncos lost one WAC game later that year but had not lost in conference play since.
Some criticism for Fresno's recent mid-season struggles had been directed at Carr's successor, Paul Pinegar, who has since emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation. At the start of the second quarter Thursday, Pinegar tossed the 71st touchdown pass of his career, passing Carr for first on the school's all-time list. Williams caught Pinegar's 29-yard floater in the end zone, which gave the Bulldogs a lead they would never relinquish.
Pinegar and Williams hooked up again later in the quarter for a 98-yard scoring reception that put Fresno ahead by two touchdowns. Williams caught the ball near the 38, shrugged off cornerback Orlando Scandrick, then shook away safety Marty Tadman en route to the end zone.
"I knew he had one-on-one coverage," said Pinegar. "Paul Williams one-on-one, I'd take that any day. He is pretty freakish if you ask me."
The crowd was late arriving and seemingly so was the home team. On the second play of the game, Fresno State allowed running back Jeff Carpenter to scamper through the middle, break two tackles and race into the end zone for a 67-yard, game-opening score.
That accounted for the Boise State highlights for much of the game. Fresno State controlled the ball for more than two-thirds of the first half and quieted a potent Broncos offense that had scored 40 or more points five times this season.
In a last-ditch effort in the third quarter, Broncos Coach Dan Hawkins chose to go for it on fourth and one from his 31, with his team trailing by 20. But running back Antwaun Carter came up inches short on the night Boise State's invincibility in the WAC came to an end.
The Broncos expected to challenge for the national title this season, but consecutive losses to Georgia and Oregon State to start the year erased them from the national radar. Fresno State, similarly, was all but forgotten in the national landscape after a three-point loss at Oregon on Sept. 17. Neither WAC school will be this year's Utah, emerging from a non-power conference to reach a BCS bowl game. But that will do little to tarnish the memory of Thursday, when Fresno ended four years of frustration.
"I was just glad we got one," said Pinegar, who threw for 307 yards. "Finally we have a chance to control our own destiny."