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Bulldog Nation

Fresno State revives dream as BCS-buster with its 3-0 start

September 26, 2004|From Associated Press

FRESNO — Between the third and fourth quarters of Fresno State's home football games, Bulldog Stadium shakes from its foundation. Thousands of fans get up and jump around, stomping and swaying to a beat that nearly brings down the house.

This frenzied little interlude is called the Bulldog Bounce, but that phrase could describe more than a group dance number. It's also an apt description of the path to national prominence followed by Coach Pat Hill's teams during eight improbably successful seasons in a former college football backwater.

Fresno State (3-0) is ranked No. 17 after finishing its annually fearsome nonconference schedule unbeaten. The Bulldogs knocked off Kansas State and Washington on the road, but eight Western Athletic Conference games stand between Fresno State and another chance to earn one of the BCS' two at-large bids.

"I guarantee you, if we keep winning, everything will take care of itself," Hill said. "The rankings aren't going to make any difference. The stage has been set for this team to make a run, and we just have to make that run."

A red-clad, enthusiastic sellout crowd -- the best in school history, according to the hyperbolic coach -- bounced in its seats during Fresno State's 27-17 win over Portland State last week. The dream of BCS glory, tirelessly sold by Hill to the fans and recruits of California's central San Joaquin Valley, seems more realistic than ever this season.

After a slate of offseason rule changes, smaller-conference teams have their best chance yet to crack the BCS bowls. The computer rankings that hurt Fresno State, Boise State, Miami of Ohio, TCU and others in the past don't have as much importance in the new formula, which puts two-thirds of its weight on the two major polls.

And Fresno State has the team to take advantage of it. The Bulldogs returned with experience and depth at nearly every position, including three-year starting quarterback Paul Pinegar and three talented tailbacks behind one of the nation's best offensive lines.

"The most important thing is that we're still at the big table," said Hill, who has grown uncommonly fond of poker metaphors this season. "We are 3-0, and that's the bottom line. We've still got all of our chips in the middle of the table. If we keep winning, it's going to happen. It's that simple."

Hill cuts a distinctive figure on the Bulldogs' sideline with his floppy mustache and sweat-stained lucky cap, but he's a unique coach for reasons beyond personal grooming. He's unafraid of the high expectations that most coaches shun, and he has sold countless recruits on the chance to play for a perfect season, not just one game at a time.

"Coach Hill is exactly how you think he's going to be," said running back Wendell Mathis, who transferred to Fresno State from UCLA last year. "He wants the best for you and for the program, and he's demanding about it. We can do big things here, and he tells you about it."

Hill also doesn't mind living in the past, at least when he's selling the possibility of playing for a national championship. Three years ago, Fresno State knocked off Oregon State, Colorado and Wisconsin to reach as high as No. 8 -- evidence, according to Hill, that it can be done again.

The Bulldogs have become a perennial bowl team, though that bowl usually is the Silicon Valley Classic. After four straight appearances in the sparsely attended second-tier game in San Jose, the Bulldogs are determined to reach a loftier destination.

Hill thinks an unbeaten team would get a BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl -- and even an 11-1 team might make the Hawaii Bowl.

"We know that everybody is going to try to knock us off," said defensive end Garrett McIntyre, a former walk-on who had 11 sacks last season. "We can't go into any game thinking we're better than them, though. We have to think like every game is the last one we're going to play."

After the hype surrounding Fresno State's nonconference wins, Hill is using a bye week to focus his team on another important goal that doesn't get the same national attention: For all of their success, the Bulldogs still haven't won a WAC title under Hill.

Fresno State's BCS dreams would be much more realistic if the Bulldogs weren't considered the second-best program in their own conference. No. 21 Boise State, led by inventive coach Dan Hawkins and a seemingly endless supply of star players rejected by other schools, has won all three of their meetings since the Broncos joined the WAC in 2001.

The teams meet in Boise on Oct. 23. If both remain unbeaten, it might be the biggest WAC game in two decades.

"If we want to be able to run the gauntlet, we've got to play at a high level every week, not just when we're playing the Kansas States or the Washingtons," Hill said. "The big thing I tell the kids is to enjoy the ride. We're undefeated.... We're still at the main table, and we're still playing for all of the chips. Right now, we have one goal, one idea."

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