Published Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018 | 4 p.m.
Updated Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018 | 6:12 p.m.
Jeff Tedford has regained a reputation as a stirring leader since taking over the Fresno State football program as head coach two seasons ago.
He might have outdone himself going into the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday afternoon, as his players raved about their motivation level borne out of his message over the last couple weeks.
“I tell them sometimes, ‘How is history going to record this team?’” Tedford said. “We said that week in and week out, and now I think they can put a real nice stamp on, 12 wins is how history is going to record this team.”
Fresno State notched that 12th win, the most in school history, with a 31-20 victory over Arizona State at the same venue where it hit one of its lowest points two years ago. Before Tedford arrived, UNLV blew out Fresno State 45-20 in October 2016 as part of a season where the Bulldogs went 1-11 without a single win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
They’re now officially the only team in NCAA history to manage back-to-back double-digit win seasons coming off a double-digit losing season.
Oh, and that’s all just a bonus.
The Bulldogs had already wrapped up their biggest goal, winning the Mountain West Conference championship, before supplementing it with a win over the Sun Devils.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to accomplish so much in one season,” sophomore running back Ronnie Rivers said.
Rivers spoke behind the Las Vegas Bowl’s MVP trophy, which he won by rushing for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Tedford revealed that Rivers played through a shoulder injury, but nothing appeared to slow him down.
He pulled the Bulldogs’ offense out of a dry spell that saw it commit giveaways on three straight possessions to open the second half to trail 20-17 when he burst through the line for a 68-yard touchdown run.
“The run was a killer,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “We just missed a gap, and he hit a homerun.”
Rivers went on to gash Arizona State with runs that Edwards would presumably describe as singles and doubles when Fresno State needed it the most. He was the focal point of a seven play, 55-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that put the Bulldogs up two scores when he found the end zone from five yards out.
It helped that the Sun Devils’ offense was also rendered useless. Their only points of the second half came after freshman cornerback Aashari Croswell intercepted a pass from Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who went back-to-back drives with an interception after only committing three all season, in Bulldogs’ territory.
Otherwise, Fresno State limited Arizona State to no points, five three-and-outs and 63 total yards in the second half.
“Defense always seems to be clicking,” McMaryion said. “We know that our defense is going to keep us in it and every time they come to the sideline, we know we are going to get going sooner or later.”
Defense provided offense in the first quarter, as senior cornerback Tank Kelly had the game’s longest play with a 70-yard interception return where he cut, juked and paused to evade a handful of defenders to put Fresno State up 10-0. Arizona State didn’t go away easily, though.
The Sun Devils scored on two straight drives to go up 14-10, leaning on junior running back Eno Benjamin, who had 121 yards on 23 carries and scored the second touchdown.
Benjamin set Arizona State’s single-season rushing-yard record in the first half and officially finished the year with 1,642 yards.
“Doesn’t matter,” Benjamin said with his head down afterwards.
Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South Division in the preseason, Arizona State also defied expectations on the year despite the bitter endings. But the game made it clear that the Sun Devils’ turnaround hasn’t been quite as dramatic as the one on the other sideline.
Tedford reflected on attending two games at the end of the 2016 season after he was hired in an, “empty stadium.” He contrasted that with the Las Vegas Bowl, where a sea of red filled the entire east side of the Sam Boyd Stadium bleachers on a day where the announced attendance was 37,146 fans.
“I felt like we needed to go through that season to get where we are now,” junior linebacker Jeff Allison said.
It’s no secret who started the shift. Fresno State went 4-20 combined in the two seasons before Tedford arrived; it’s now gone 22-6 behind the former California coach in the two seasons since.
The Bulldogs started 12 seniors in the Las Vegas Bowl, so it may be difficult to maintain the pace again next season. But Rivers isn’t worried.
At the least, he knows Tedford will have the Bulldogs ready to go.
“He always knows exactly what to say to get us fired up,” Rivers said.