FRESNO, Calif. » Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter bounded off the field at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday night, going from jubilant hug to jubilant hug as he made his way toward the dark, inflatable tunnel stretching up the hill from the south end zone.
The cause for celebration for the 6-6 Bulldogs was winning the Mountain West Conference West Division by holding on for a 28-21 win over Hawaii.
"We’re here," DeRuyter said later. "It may have been ugly, but we’re here. We’re not apologizing for it because we’re Western Division champs."
Fresno State advances to next weekend’s Mountain West Championship game at Boise State, which wrapped up the Mountain Division on Saturday by beating Utah State. Boise State beat the Bulldogs 37-27 on Oct. 17 at Boise.
This season has been a far cry from last year, when Fresno State went 11-2 for the season. The Bulldogs, led by now-Oakland Raider quarterback Derek Carr, won the conference and lost to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Last year, Fresno State was considered a potential BCS-buster. This year, well, the playoff committee won’t be calling. The Bulldogs started the year off by losing their first three games, then winning their next three, then losing their next three. Saturday’s win made it yet another three-game streak.
Safety Derron Smith said Fresno State turned its season around when it beat San Jose State 38-34 on Nov. 8. That was the first game of the current winning streak.
"We really pulled together and had a really good game against San Jose," Smith said. "But we had great weeks of practice a lot this year and they didn’t always turn into wins. So to keep putting in the work, to see my teammates keep working in practice, when people are hot, when people are tired, when you’re sore. To put in the work to even have the opportunity to win, that might have been the turning point."
When Smith was asked if the Bulldogs have anything to apologize for — specifically their record — he said, "Not at all. We’re in the championship game. It doesn’t matter what our record is, whether we go undefeated, whether we go 6-6."
On Saturday, Fresno State jumped out to a 28-0 lead before Hawaii finally got going with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Rainbow Warriors scored the last touchdown with 45 seconds left and Shannon Edwards recovered the ensuing onside kick for the Bulldogs.
DeRuyter called it a microcosm of Fresno State’s season, but it never really felt like Hawaii was threatening. Norm Chow declined to attempt an onside kick after the Warriors’ second touchdown, with just 8:11 to go in the game. The Bulldogs had just six men up for that kickoff.
By winning the division, Fresno State has a chance to capture the Mountain West for the third consecutive season. The Bulldogs shared the title in 2012 (there was no conference championship game that year) and beat Utah State last year for the crown. The last time Fresno State won or shared a conference title in three consecutive seasons was 1991-93. The Bulldogs shared the Big West championship the first year, then shared the Western Athletic Conference crown the next two.