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Inside College Football

Pinegar Was Pac-10 Material

An injury derailed his chances to play at Cal or Oregon, but Fresno State is glad to have the quarterback.

November 17, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Paul Pinegar is disarmingly honest.

Yes, he says, if not for the torn thumb ligament he suffered during his senior high school season in Woodland, Calif., that caused so many of his passes to flutter, and if those wobbly balls hadn't discouraged the coaches at California and Oregon, he might have been a Pacific 10 Conference quarterback.

Instead, Pinegar, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior, will lead Fresno State against top-ranked USC Saturday night at the Coliseum.

"[Cal Coach] Jeff Tedford was talking to me," Pinegar said. "I went to the Oregon camps and I kept hearing how much they liked me. Then I got hurt and all of a sudden I didn't have any Division I offers."

Sacramento State, Idaho State, Portland State, all from Division I-AA, were the top programs interested -- until his parents' old school finally came calling.

Said Pinegar: "It was the best chance I got."

The chance has turned into a four-year journey of starting and starring. Pinegar, who followed first-round NFL draft pick David Carr into Fresno, has a 32-9 record as a Bulldog.

Pinegar leads the Western Athletic Conference in pass efficiency and is 10th in the NCAA. He has broken Carr's school career touchdown record. He is 3-0 in bowl games. He has quarterbacked wins over Kansas State, Virginia, Colorado State, Washington, Georgia Tech and UCLA.

"He's a winner," Coach Pat Hill said. "He's what we call a diamond in the rough."

Hill made the effort to add polish. A well-known workaholic, the caps Hill wears are always ringed with sweat. Hill played college football at UC Riverside and has coached at Los Angeles Valley College, with the Calgary Stampeders, in the NFL with Cleveland and Baltimore, and seemingly every place in between. Nine years ago, Hill came to Fresno with a simple plan.

"I think we can contend for a national title," Hill said. "People think I'm crazy for saying that, but why not? We have to go undefeated. We have to go play anybody anywhere. And then we'll see."

It is this absolute conviction that pushes Hill to put the Bulldogs on a bus and come to USC on a Saturday in November. It is also conviction that liberates him.

"I'm not recruiting guys who will be first- or second-round NFL draft picks," he said. "I'm recruiting guys to make into sixth- or seventh-round picks."

So if a high-school-age Paul Pinegar is playing football with a cast on his hand, that's an opportunity.

"What I knew was that the kid was an excellent baseball pitcher, a good athlete, that he'd been recruited by the big guys, and that we'd have a lot of work to do," Hill said. "He wasn't a pearl, but neither was David Carr.

"If you look at the NFL now, though, we've got 19 guys playing. Two were first-rounders. We've never had a top-70 recruiting class. Probably never will."

Yet here the Bulldogs are, ranked 16th in the nation with a 37-34 loss to No. 10 Oregon the only blemish on their 8-1 record. They beat WAC nemesis Boise State, 27-7, last Thursday night to end a four-game losing streak to the Broncos. They have won 14 of their last 15 games.

"We've got plenty to lose too," Hill said of Saturday's game. "Our reputation is on the line if we're talking about playing, year after year, at the highest level. You go 11-2 at Fresno State, so what? You've got to run the table and win on the road against the best teams in the country.

"We want to play USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford. We've always brought good fans, good crowds. We'll bring 20,000, 30,000 fans. Why not schedule us?

"You know, there was a day when nobody wanted to play Virginia Tech. Now it's quite a feather in anybody's cap to beat Virginia Tech. If we go down to USC and get beat severely, we'll be beaten up tremendously by the media. But I'd rather have the opportunity for this game and take the chance."

Just as Hill took the chance on Pinegar, who now dreams of playing in the NFL.

Will he be a first-round draft pick like Carr?

"I don't think so," Hill said. "So what? He'll play in the league because he's got functional intelligence. He can operate the game. Matt Leinart has functional intelligence. Saturday night you'll see two of the better quarterbacks in the country as far as operating and managing the game."

This will be the second time that Fresno State has played a No. 1-ranked football team. The first was in 2003, and the Bulldogs got walloped at Oklahoma, 55-28.

"A lot of us were around for that," Pinegar said. "It was a learning experience. Maybe we didn't belong then. I think we do now."

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