Fresno State beat Boise State 37-30 in front of a sellout home crowd on Saturday, its victory swinging on two plays with running back Malik Sherrod front and center but far from alone, a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 52-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
That kickoff return score was the first for the Bulldogs since 2008. They went 647 returns in between touchdowns, and a peek into that play provides a glimpse into two programs headed in opposite directions.
Boise State had just cut a Bulldogs’ lead to three points, scoring with seven seconds remaining before halftime, and it was to get the kickoff to start the second half with momentum on its side.
But the Broncos made a tactical error that was compounded by poor execution with a squib kickoff that was deep enough that it bounced past the Bulldogs’ front line ends and fullbacks and all of the way to Sherrod, who picked the football up on a hop, got big blocks in the middle of the field from Merhauti Xepera, Kamron Beachem, Jake Tarwater and Toreon Penright and took off toward the left corner of the end zone.
He was cut off by the Boise State kicker at the sideline around the 15, but deftly sidestepped an attempted tackle and the Bulldogs’ lead was back into double digits.
Here’s the thing. If Boise State had just kicked off in the air, Fresno State was going to take a fair catch, take a knee and go into the half. Pooch it, fair catch. Kick it deep, fair catch.
“If they kick it anywhere else but to Malik, we’re going to catch it and take a knee,” special teams coach John Baxter said. “We lucked out with where the ball went and Malik made a heck of a play, along with all the guys who blocked for him.”
Sherrod said he knew that an opportunity would be there, even though Boise State had put a good number of its kickoffs this season into the end zone (57.5%) for a touch back.
“I knew they weren’t going to try to kick it deep,” he said. “(Baxter) just said let the return play out and that’s what happened. The guys got some beautiful blocks out there. They set me up to be successful and I had to finish it off.”
Boise State coach Andy Avalos acknowledged the mistake.
“Ultimately, when we squib like that we don’t want the ball going back to the returners,” he said. “If you’re going to squib in that situation you don’t want the ball in their hands for obvious reasons and that’s on us to make sure that we get the executed better next time.”
Boise State errs on on kickoff
But on his way to the end zone Sherrod said he glanced up at the clock on the scoreboard and saw triple zeros, 0:00, and knew he had to get there.
The kicker had no chance. “Cooked food,” Sherrod said.
“That guy played possessed tonight, I’m not kidding you,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “In the locker room before the game I was very close to saying, ‘Hey, just calm down.’ He was geared up, ready to go. He was very passionate, very emotional.”
Sherrod and Fresno State (8-1, 4-1 in the Mountain West) did not lack motivation in clearing debris from its road back to the conference championship game - the Bulldogs are tied in second place with UNLV, but hold a head-to-head tie breaker over the Rebels with a 31-24 victory on Oct. 28..
It beat Boise State to win the title last season, but had not won back-to-back games in the series since wins in 1984 and 1996, losing seven in a row at one point by some gut-punching scores including 61-10, 51-0 and 57-7.
There was a trophy on the line, the Milk Can.
There also was a video from former Bulldogs’ quarterback Jake Haener, which was played at a team meeting Friday night, and reminded everyone about the last time Boise State (4-5, 3-2) had played in the San Joaquin valley.
Bulldogs didn’t lack for motivation
The Bulldogs had a lot on the line in that game, too, and got smoked. It was 40-14.
“(Sherrod) has become a leader of this team,” Tedford said. “He has a very strong voice on this team and boy did he play great tonight. One of the best efforts I’ve seen and they weren’t all easy runs, there were a lot of tough runs in there for him.”
The fourth quarter touchdown was not all that difficult, but Fresno State has not had much success rushing it over the final 15 minutes and putting down games.
It had averaged just 3.0 yards on 76 rushing plays in the fourth quarter, and the past three games had 11 yards on five plays against UNLV, 41 yards on 12 plays against Utah State and six yards on four plays against Wyoming.
But on a second-and-11, Sherrod on an inside zone run bolted past left guard Osmar Velez as he was flattening Boise State defensive tackle Braxton Fely and went untouched the rest of the way to the end zone. It was the longest run this season against Boise State, which went into the game ranked second in the Mountain West in rushing defense.
“Coach called a play and I knew I had to get a first down so I got the ball, saw the crease and hit it,” said Sherrod, who finished with 132 rushing yards on 21 plays, his third game with 100 or more this season. “I felt a little shoulder fly or something, I just brushed it off and kept running for the touchdown. I saw two guys on the side of me chasing me down but I knew I was faster than them, I knew I could get to the end zone.”
By the numbers
255: All-purpose yards for Sherrod, which includes the kickoff return touchdown. The running back had 593 in his first seven games combined, 84.7 per game. The 255 yards is the 10th most in a single game in program history. Robbie Rouse had 311 in a game against Louisiana Tech in 2010.
14: Interceptions by Fresno State this season, with linebacker Phoenix Jackson and cornerback Al’zillion Hamilton picking off passes against Boise State. The 14 interceptions leads the Mountain West, are tied for third in the nation, and are the most in a season by the Bulldogs since they had 19 in 14 games in 2018.
78.8: Keene’s completion percentage after throwing an interception late in the second quarter. He hit 11 of his final 14 passes including nine in a row at one point.
4: Games in a row that Fresno State has been outgained, while going 3-1. The Broncos had 488 total yards to 441 for the Bulldogs.
19: Targets for Boise State wideout Eric McAlister, who had just eight receptions for 85 yards and no touchdowns. McAlister was leading the Mountain West and 10th in the nation, averaging 21.2 yards per catch.
6: Explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards for Boise State, matching the most allowed in a game this season by Fresno State. Utah State also had six against the Bulldogs.
11: The Bulldogs have settled for a field goal 11 times this season when in the red zone, after Dylan Lynch hit from 22 and 24 yards against the Broncos.
1: Penalty called against Fresno State, a pass interference. That is the fewest penalties against the Bulldogs this season. The previous low was three against Kent State and Nevada.
3: Punts by the Bulldogs’ Carson King that were downed inside the 20-yard line. Boise State started drives at its 11, 13, 16 and 20 yard line following punts. The Broncos’ average starting field position in the game was their 20-yard line. Fresno State had an average starting field position of its 33-yard line.