Hill promises the Dogs will be back
A year ago, Fresno State came thisclose to upsetting No. 1 USC. This year, the Bulldogs are 1-5. How did they fall so far so fast?
The voice is the same. So are the unfiltered opinions.
Like he does every fall, Pat Hill is sounding off, volunteering views on various topics, namely the BCS and the lack of a playoff. Hill's candor is almost as distinctive as his Fu Manchu, setting the Fresno State coach apart from his paranoid and tongue-tied colleagues.
But these days, Hill's straight talk doesn't boom from a perch atop the mid-major kingdom. Instead, it echoes from a darker, danker place, one that many thought Hill and Fresno State would never see again.
Fresno State has lost nine of its last 10 games, a plunge that began after its near-upset of USC in an epic clash in November 2005 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"This is the first time we've ever been through anything like this," said Hill, whose teams averaged 8.8 wins between 1999 and 2005.
How could a team that paced the nation's top team for three and a half quarters 11 months ago backslide so far so fast?
The answer is twofold.
A statistical examination shows that Fresno State ranks 106th nationally in turnover margin (minus-1 average), 109th in scoring defense (31.2 ppg), 113th in pass efficiency defense (156.7 rating) and 116th in net punting (28.03 ypp). Two years ago, the 9-3 Bulldogs were third nationally in pass efficiency defense and 19th in turnover margin.
Before Saturday's flogging, Fresno State had lost its previous four games by an average of 5.25 points. Against Washington, the Bulldogs had a game-tying extra point blocked with 4:30 left and lost 21-20. Two weeks later, Fresno State missed two field goals (27 and 42 yards) and allowed the game-winning touchdown with 55 seconds left in a 13-12 loss to previously winless Utah State.
"If we just make a couple field goals and hold a couple extra points, we win a couple of those early games. Who knows what would have happened to the team's confidence?"
The C-word is the second element of Fresno State's plight, and arguably the harder one to repair. Unlike BCS conference teams that can survive early-season losses (California, Texas, Tennessee), Fresno State can't shake off its September stumbles.
"I'm more convinced of it now than ever," Hill said. "This BCS thing is a joke. Until the playoff stage comes to football, it's very unfair to see the playoffs start on Labor Day weekend. Everything is based on being perfect. TCU goes into the season 12-1. They've lost two games; their season's over. We lose to Oregon and our season was over, really, in the eyes of a lot of people.
"Basketball's a different deal. All you've got to do is win that league tournament at the end of the year. Here, in some situations, the season's over very, very early."
Bulldogs players understand the urgency.
"It's a do-or-die situation every game," senior free safety Josh Sherley said. "That's how it is in football. It's not like baseball or basketball.
Hill and his assistants continue to ooze optimism during meetings and practices, but they can't control how outside pessimism affects the players.
"If you don't think that young people are hearing and listening to everything that's going on, you're mistaken," Hill said. "You can't keep it insulated."
Fresno State's current residence in ESPN.com's infamous "Bottom 10" has Hill particularly peeved. While undefeated Boise State struggles to move up the polls because of a perceived soft schedule, Hill said the Bulldogs are penalized for stumbling against top competition.
"If we play the real tough schedule and get off to a bad start, we've got everybody in the world saying, 'It's the end of the year for Fresno. They're no good. They're in the Bottom 10 in the country,'" Hill said. "We're not anywhere near belonging in the Bottom 10. But those are the things you get sometimes when you bite off the challenge you need to do as a mid-major."
Sour grapes? Perhaps. But Hill has never been one to bite his tongue, even in happier times.
The more important question is, what comes next for Fresno State?
Hill isn't planning any wholesale changes, though sophomore Sean Norton will replace Tom Brandstater as the starting quarterback Saturday night against No. 14 LSU (ESPN2, 9 ET). Norton threw three touchdowns passes against Hawaii, but Hill remains confident in Brandstater, whom he feels hasn't received adequate support this year.
"Everybody always thinks there's a miracle cure or a quick change or a quick fix," Hill said. "It might work for a week, but the things that have gotten you there in the past are usually going to keep you there."
One of those traits, a willingness to play any team anytime anywhere, will be revived Saturday in Baton Rouge, La.
LSU boasts the nation's top-ranked defense (211.7 ypg) and a dangerous quarterback in JaMarcus Russell, who ranks eighth nationally in passing efficiency. Despite his team's slide, Hill said the LSU game arrives "at the perfect time."
He's making sure his players feel the same way.
"[Hill] basically told us that there's 66 guys that can make this travel squad," said Sherley, who has 40 tackles this season. "He probably won't travel 66 guys if they're not guys who will go out and give everything they have.
"We could have as little as 50 guys making this trip, but those 50 guys are going to get the job done."
Hill called LSU "a bloodletting game." Asked to describe the team's mood, Sherley replied, "Eager."
"This program has done a lot in 10 years and we're not going to let some negative times tear us down," Hill said. "The Dogs will be back. I promise you that."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.