Much improved from 2011, the 2012 version of the Fresno State Bulldogs recorded nine wins during the regular season in the Mountain West. Fresno State rarely let games that they should win slip away from them, and the Hawaii Bowl against a six-win C-USA team fit that category. Would the trend continue as their passing game tore apart the Southern Methodist defense, or would the underdog find a way to match blow for blow in this battle of offensively oriented squads on Christmas Eve? Buoyed by a 22-point second quarter, the Mustangs unexpectedly trampled the Bulldogs in a game that they never trailed and led by double digits throughout the second half.
On SMU’s opening possession, senior running back Zach Line supplied the initial spark before quarterback Garrett Gilbert kept the ball for a 37-yard third-down dash through a massive hole in the Fresno State line. Once inside the Bulldogs 30, however, the drive stalled after consecutive incompletions, and a field-goal attempt trickled weakly off the right upright. Fresno State then converted a third down on their initial series behind running back Robbie Rouse. Able to subject Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr to steady pressure, SMU forced a punt that they returned inside midfield. That strong field position resulted in nothing as Gilbert struggled to find open receivers and suffered a costly sack. Soon afterwards, they regained possession in a favorable position with a Fresno State three-and-out yet once again could not move the chains.
What had looked like an offensive showdown at first glance had settled into a defensive grind with neither quarterbacks able to maintain their rhythm nor running backs able to find space consistently. The first breakthrough came on a 29-yard completion from Carr to Marcel Jensen that took the Bulldogs inside SMU territory for the first time. Ended by a sack of Carr, the drive produced nothing more than pinning the Mustangs inside their own 10. Not intimidated by that dismal field position, Gilbert hurled a long completion to Austin Fuller just before the period ended.
Fresno State 0, SMU 0
That 69-yard pass, which accounted for more than half of SMU’s total yardage in the first quarter, seemed to galvanize the Mustangs offense. With an explosive spurt into the end zone by Gilbert, they finally ignited the scoring. This first strike seemed especially auspicious because SMU had won every game over the last two years when they had scored first—and lost every game when they hadn’t. As distinct underdogs, they benefited from the boost to their confidence, which swelled further when they sacked and forced a fumble from Carr on the next Fresno State possession. Returned inside the Bulldogs red zone, it set up the Mustangs for their second score in less than five minutes. Although Gilbert could not break free for another touchdown, a short field goal extended the lead to double digits. Extending SMU’s momentum, a second-down sack of Carr for a loss of nearly 20 yards preceded a third-down sack in the end zone for a safety. Racing for a third-down conversion on the ensuing possession, the indefatigable Gilbert completed five straight passes after struggling to find receivers for most of the half. Another rush from the Mustangs quarterback set up his team’s first and-goal opportunity of the game, which Line converted immediately.
Desperately needing an answer, Fresno State fumbled again inside their own territory on the next possession following a belated handoff from Carr to Rouse, who was immediately tackled and had the ball jarred loose by Mustangs defensive lineman Margus Hunt. Still in the first half, Hunt already had recorded three sacks, including the safety, and forced both fumbles. When incompletions and a penalty doomed that possession, SMU still turned the turnover into points on a 49-yard field goal from kicker Chase Hover. Finally showing a sense of urgency as the clock ticked down, Carr completed a 33-yard pass for Fresno State’s first legitimate scoring opportunity. But a stop in the shadow of the goal line left an offense full of weapons scoreless in the first half, despite the logical choice to aim for a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal. While the Mustangs entered halftime full of belief, Fresno State needed to search their minds for adjustments.
SMU 22, Fresno State 0
Receiving the second-half kickoff, Fresno State squandered the opportunity after more uncertain play from Carr. When SMU attempted to lengthen the lead into a game that had started to resemble a rout, their first turnover of the game set up the Bulldogs offense inside the red zone. This time, Carr capitalized on the chance provided him by leading a quick scoring drive that ended the shutout. Pegged back to a two-score margin, the Mustangs responded with a 75-yard drive in just seven plays, three of which collected nineteen yards or more. For the exclamation point, Gilbert found Darius Johnson in the corner of the end zone for an elegant 21-yard fade that restored the halftime margin. Throughout the game, Gilbert often fared better on long attempts than on short and mid-range attempts, racking up plenty of yards despite a modest efficiency rate. Conservative, unproductive possessions followed from both teams, on one of which Fresno State gained only a single yard. Gilbert drove the Mustangs inside Fresno territory with another bold run, only to suffer his fourth sack of the game as the period ended.
SMU 29, Fresno State 7
Suddenly catching fire again in the passing game, consecutive long completions from Carr positioned the Bulldogs inside the SMU red zone. From there, though, the Fresno State offensive line could not protect their quarterback in the pocket long enough for Carr to find his targets. Narrowly avoiding a third-down sack, he threw incomplete as his offense settled for a mid-range field goal. After he absorbed a sack early in the next series, Gilbert rebounded to scramble for a first down near midfield. That drive halted abruptly when he threw a quick slant pass for an unnecessary interception. Returning the favor just two plays later, Carr threw a pick-six to Taylor Reed that essentially put the game away for SMU. As had proved the case for most of the game, Fresno State’s mistakes cost them much more than the same mistakes cost the Mustangs. SMU’s sixth sack of Carr produced a turnover on downs in the next possession, by which time the Bulldogs looked listless and resigned to defeat. The last several minutes ticked off uneventfully, other than a second pick-six from Carr, before SMU coach June Jones recorded his fifth consecutive victory at the Hawaii Bowl, an event just eleven years old.
The projected star of the Hawaii Bowl, Derek Carr finished with a dismal four turnovers, one safety, and only one touchdown. Outdueling him was former Texas cast-off Garrett Gilbert, whose inspired and generally intelligent effort set the tone for a resounding victory that should give heavy underdogs hope in future bowls.
Final score: SMU 43, Fresno State 10
Next bowl recap:
Little Caesars Bowl (Wednesday): Western Kentucky (Sun Belt) vs. Central Michigan (MAC)