For the second straight week, Fresno State finds itself in a huge game with important bowl implications.
The Bulldogs, coming off a 27-7 win over Boise State last Thursday to claim undisputed possession of first-place in the Western Athletic Conference, visit top-ranked and two-time defending national champion USC Saturday night (7 p.m.) at the Coliseum.
Fresno State, 8-1 overall and ranked 16th in all three polls, goes into the game riding a seven-game winning streak. Had it not been for a narrow loss to Oregon on Sept. 17, this could very well be a meeting between two Top 10 teams.
It's a huge game for the WAC and Fresno State. A good showing, or better yet a win, would put the WAC in the spotlight and give the Bulldogs a slight chance to get into a BCS game.
This will be the second time in Pat Hill's tenure that the Bulldogs have played a top team. Two years ago, Fresno State went to Oklahoma when the Sooners were No. 1.
"It's exciting," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. "That's why you sign up for this stuff, to play games like this in late November.
"We had a team meeting (Sunday) and about half of the 60-man travel squad for USC were redshirt freshmen or sophomores two years ago when we played Oklahoma when they were No. 1 in the nation. Now they are juniors and seniors. I feel like I'm taking a lot better team. I look forward to playing this game. I'm excited about this game."
How big is this game? Let Hill and the rest of the WAC coaches tell you. This could affect scheduling, recruiting and at stake is a big dose of respect for the conference.
"It's a great opportunity," Hill said. "We're Division I, and like everybody else, we're playing for the same opportunity. It's a tough road for Fresno State. A lot of teams are trying to get one of those eight (BCS) spots."
"Obviously, it would be tremendous if they win," Utah State's Brent Guy said. "Fresno State is a very talented football team. They have the ability to play with anybody. It will be a lot of fun for the kids. Anytime a WAC team goes into a BCS conference and has a chance (to win), the WAC looks better."
"If that happens it will be great for the conference." said Idaho coach Nick Holt, a former USC assistant. "My hat would be off to Fresno State. I think it will be a really good game."
Right now, the contract between the schools is only for one year. Hill would love to see it extended.
"They have a couple of spots (open)," Hill said. "I'm sure our athletic director will be talking to their athletic director. I've been trying to get this game for a long time. We're trying to build a program here that gets respect throughout the country. This game and the UCLA games are their only sellouts."
If Hill wants a home-and-home, he probably won't get it. The Bulldogs don't have a big enough facility for a game of this stature. Knowing Hill, he wouldn't mind going to LA every year to play a team like UCLA or USC. Hill said he wishes California teams like Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC could be forced to play other schools within the state. He intimated that Florida was forced to play games against Florida State and Miami.
USC and Fresno State go after the same kids on the recruiting trails. A win would help Fresno State to get into even more homes than they do now.
"They (the players) all know who they are," Hill said. "They have played with each other or against each other."
Several analysts said two weeks ago that USC's toughest game down the stretch might be Fresno State. Hill hopes they are right.
FOUR WAC TEAMS QUALIFY
Four WAC schools - Fresno State, Boise State, Nevada and Louisiana Tech - have become bowl eligible.
For the first time since they won the WAC in 2001 in their first year in the conference, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs are bowl eligible.
Only the top two WAC teams are guaranteed bowl spots. If Fresno State is taken by an outside bowl, the bowl selection committee would choose between Louisiana Tech and Nevada for the Hawai'i Bowl. Boise State apparently will stay home and play in the MPC Computers Bowl, according to commissioner Karl Benson.
Benson said there were several bowl reps at last week's Boise State-Fresno game.
"There continues to be strong interest in Fresno State as an at-large team," Benson said. "We'll continue to have dialog (with bowl officials). We have four bowl teams and all four have a chance at a share for first place."
Benson said that the Southeastern Conference, which has eight bowl slots, will only be able to field at the most seven, and Tennessee has to win out to be the seventh bowl eligible team from the SEC.
The Pac-10 has six spots, including a BCS slot, according to Benson. Cal, Oregon, UCLA and USC have already qualified. Oregon State and Arizona State are 5-5 and Stanford is 5-4. OSU finishes with Oregon, ASU finishes with Arizona and Stanford finishes with Cal and Notre Dame. The Pac-10 is contracted to the Sun Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Insight.com Bowl, San Francisco Bowl and Pioneer Pure Vision Las Vegas Bowl. The latter would obviously be attractive to the Wolf Pack.
The one thing working against the WAC is that the Atlantic Coast Conference will qualify two extra teams, which means more competition for at-large or vacant slots.
If Louisiana Tech wins out, it could get a share of the WAC title, though that is highly unlikely. Tech figures to finish fourth, yet could still get a bowl bid. Given its location, Tech could be a good draw for bowl games in the Southwest or Southeast should conferences fail to send enough teams.
"I have absolutely no idea (if it would help)," Bicknell said. "I don't even think about it. I don't care. I'm thinking about Boise State. If we win out, we won't have to think about it."
MCINTYRE, KELLY HONORED
Fresno State's Garrett McIntyre, a South Tahoe High graduate, was named the WAC's Defensive Player of the Week.
McIntyre, a senior, recorded four tackles, including two sacks for minus-16 yards. He helped the Bulldog defense hold a potent Boise State offense to its lowest point total (7) in 85 games and only 294 yards total offense. The 27-7 win snapped Boise State's WAC-record 31-game win streak.
Hawai'i kicker Dan Kelly was named the Special teams Player of the Week for his efforts against Utah State. Kelly kicked field goals of 46 and 31 yards, and he converted six extra points.
San Jose State and New Mexico State, who face off Saturday have a few things in common.
Both programs made coaching changes (Hal Mumme to New Mexico State and Dick Tomey to San Jose State) and both schools have endured losing seasons.
New Mexico State is 0-10, and has come close to winning just once this year, that coming in an overtime loss to Idaho.
The Spartans were off last week and take a 1-8 record into the game. San Jose State has suffered heartbreaking losses to Nevada and Hawai'i thus far.
"It's tough to go through it everyday," Mumme said. "We keep it light at practice."
The Aggies have a young team, and Mumme said that makes it a little easier to accept. One of those youngsters, receiver A.J. Harris, caught three scoring passes against Nevada last weekend.
Idaho and Boise State used to play their nonconference in-state rivalry game early in the season. The teams collide this weekend, and at least Idaho's Holt thinks this is where the game belongs date-wise.
"I like it (this late in season)," Holt said. "It's not the last week, but the second or third week of November."
n Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com or (775) 881-1281