POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2012
Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas had no doubts that he had the right teammates in place.
"We've had the talent always," the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year said on Thursday. "But to have the coaching and the people to drive us every day to get better and be great in everything we do — I think that changed."
Coach Tim DeRuyter has a chance to accomplish in his first year what Fresno State hasn't done in more than a decade when the Bulldogs try for their 10th win of the season in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl against SMU on Monday afternoon at Aloha Stadium.
Assigned the task of replacing Pat Hill, who guided the Bulldogs to 11 bowl games in his 15 seasons, DeRuyter has brought a set of core values in addition to a high-octane spread offense that has lit up the scoreboard all year long.
The Bulldogs are 12th in the country, averaging 40.2 points per game, and have scored at least 42 points in each of their past five wins.
"People want to see explosive games," DeRuyter said. "When I came here, I wanted to run a spread, up-tempo style of offense because it puts some pressure on people. … It's tough on defensive coordinators."
DeRuyter, who has already won more games than any other first-year coach at Fresno State, has done it with primarily the same team that went 4-9 in 2011.
FSU returned 14 starters on offense and defense and won a share of a conference title for the first time since 1999.
It swept the big MWC player honors with Thomas getting the player of the year nod on defense and quarterback Derek Carr winning the offensive player of the year award.
"Coming off the year we had last year, to be able to potentially win 10 games and to be here for a bowl game, it feels good to put Fresno State back on the map," said Thomas, a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back. "Coach challenged us every day in every practice and he's been a big key to this to get us focused and build us back up."
One of values DeRuyter stressed all year is trust — a trait that will be tested all the way up until the bowl game. Unlike a lot of teams that play in the Christmas Eve game, Fresno State isn't enforcing a curfew with its players.
"From Day 1 when I got hired I talked to these guys about two core values of our program are going to be truth and love," DeRuyter said. "Truth has got to be based in trust. If we don't have that … we can't have the team we want to have."
DeRuyter took over at Fresno after spending two years as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. He served as the Aggies' interim head coach in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last December even after accepting the Bulldogs job.
At the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl press conference on Friday, he admitted that experience has helped prepare him for this year's game.
"Selfishly, I think it helped me as a head coach learn how to plan for a bowl game — understand the balance you have to have with finishing the school year academically, having a good time at the bowl yet still getting the work done," he said. "Trying to use that similar blueprint coming here (is a) lot easier when you only have one job and one team to worry about as opposed to two."
The Bulldogs have turned things around quickly thanks in large part to a defense that ranks fifth in the country in turnover margin after finishing 116th last season.
Thomas' eight interceptions are tops in the nation and the Bulldogs have scored eight defensive touchdowns, second only to SMU's nine.
Offensively, Carr has been just as good at not turning the ball over, throwing 36 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
Ninth in the country in pass efficiency, Carr has a chance to go up against SMU's June Jones, who heavily recruited the junior QB out of Bakersfield Christian High in California.
Carr said he was always set on being a Bulldog, but the former University of Hawaii head coach was the one guy who nearly got him to leave the West Coast.
"All I wanted to do was go to Fresno … when it came down to it my top two choices were SMU and Fresno State," Carr said. "I did choose Fresno State and I don't regret it … I'm pretty happy to be a Bulldog."