The turnaround wasn’t supposed to be this quick for first-year coach Tim DeRuyter.
The Fresno State Bulldogs ended 2011 with an ugly 4-9 mark which was capped off by the firing of head coach Pat Hill, who had been with the program since 1997.
Despite last year’s struggles, DeRuyter and his staff felt as though this year’s team could experience success, but first the players would have to buy into the new coach’s system. Clearly, that wasn’t much of an issue.
For the first time since 2010, the Bulldogs are back in college football’s postseason. Fresno State, which finished the regular season 9-3 and in a three-way tie atop the Mountain West with Boise State and San Diego State, will take on June Jones’ SMU Mustangs in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.
The transformation from 2011 to 2012 has been marked by vast improvements on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs. Perhaps most surprising has been the defense, which is one of the best in the Mountain West.
Fresno State is fourth in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 163.4 yards per game through the air. The Bulldogs are an opportunistic bunch, picking off 20 passes this season, with eight of them courtesy of safety Phillip Thomas.
This isn’t good news for SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who has struggled with accuracy and been picked off 13 times this season while only throwing 14 touchdowns.
For SMU, the key to offensive success will be the run game. If there is an area of concern for Fresno State, it is stopping running back Zach Line. The senior is just one score shy of breaking the school record for career rushing touchdowns held by Eric Dickerson, and he will be trying to impress NFL scouts as well.
However, Line won’t be able to beat the Bulldogs alone. While Fresno State’s defense is solid, it is the offense that got the team to this point.
The Bulldogs offense is littered with future NFL talent, most notably at quarterback. Junior Derek Carr, younger brother of former Fresno State great David Carr, is an extremely accurate passer who has the ability to carve up SMU’s porous defense.
The Mustangs allow over 270 yards per game through the air, and Carr doesn’t make many mistakes, meaning he could find his receivers in the end zone often in Honolulu.
Carr is intelligent in the pocket and can escape when he needs to, which adds a wrinkle of unpredictability to his game.
Fresno State’s offense isn’t one-dimensional, though. Assisting Carr in the Bulldogs’ potent attack is running back Robbie Rouse, who teammates affectionately refer to as “Mighty Mouse.” Despite a relatively small 5'7" stature, Rouse is a powerful back who will give SMU trouble by always fighting for extra yards.
If the Bulldogs didn’t just sit around and enjoy the sun this past week, it will be very difficult for June Jones to work his magic at Aloha Stadium.
Jones, who guided SMU to its first bowl in 25 years in 2009, was in a similar position the last time his team played in the Hawaii Bowl.
That year, the Mustangs were matched up against Nevada, which was a heavy favorite thanks to a high-powered offense led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Jones and his team didn’t blink, however, punishing Kaepernick all game and blowing out the Wolf Pack, 45-10.
This could be a cautionary tale for Fresno State, which is currently a 12-point favorite, according to ESPN.com’s daily line.
The Bulldogs haven’t taken any opponents lightly, though. Every win this season has been a blowout, and DeRuyter’s team has only lost to ranked squads Oregon State and Boise State and Conference USA champion Tulsa.
If the offense is firing on all cylinders, Fresno State has a good chance at winning at least 10 games for the first time since 2001, when the older Carr was still at the school.
Not bad for a team that probably would’ve been ecstatic with a .500 record this season.