No. 21 Fresno State concluded arguably the best season in school history with an emphatic win over Arizona State on Saturday, toppling the Sun Devils 31-20 in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl.
For a moment in the third quarter, it seemed the Las Vegas Bowl was headed toward a heartbreaking loss. After a 17-17 first half, Fresno State threatened to strike first in the second half when Dejonte O’Neal hauled in a beautifully designed screen pass and jetted 29 yards toward the end zone. But the ball was dislodged as O’Neal reached toward the pylon, resulting in a fumble that turned the ball over to the Sun Devils.
Fresno State forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, but the Bulldogs’ next touch ended in another costly turnover when Marcus McMariyon was intercepted in his own territory.
Brandon Ruiz turned that pick into a 44-yard field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Fresno State’s next possession ended in another McMariyon pick near midfield, but again the Bulldog defense stiffened, forcing another three-and-out — though with the help of Herm Edwards. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Fresno State 44 with a 3-point lead, Edwards elected to take a delay of game and punt the ball away. The Sun Devils gained only two first downs after that punt.
Given a fourth chance to take the lead, Fresno State this time didn’t leave anything to chance. McMariyon handed the ball to Ronnie Rivers, who charged 68 yards for a touchdown to give Fresno State a lead it would not relinquish. The Fresno State defense thoroughly shut down the Sun Devils’ second-half offense — forcing four three-and-outs and an interception, while surrendering just a 13-yard field goal drive — which allowed Rivers’ 5-yard touchdown rush with 5:19 remaining to put a cap on an important, satisfying win.
Rivers earned MVP honors, rushing 24 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns.
Arizona State’s comeback efforts ended when Manny Wilkins was intercepted by Juju Hughes at the Fresno State 11-yard line with 3:36 remaining. The senior closed his career hitting 17-of-25 passes for 112 yards — he threw for just one yard after halftime — with one touchdown and two picks, including a pick-six.
With the win, Fresno State set a school record with 12 wins, capping a season in which the club captured its third Mountain West championship. The Bulldogs will end the season ranked inside the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2004, another impressive milestone in the Jeff Tedford era, a 2-year run in which a program that went 4-20 in 2015-17 has turned the tide to go 22-6 in 2017-18.
Despite the loss, Year 1 of the Edwards era was still a success for Arizona State. Picked to finished last in the Pac-12 South in the league’s preseason poll, the Sun Devils concluded the year at 7-6.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-0 lead 10 minutes when Anthoula Kelly stepped in front of a Wilkins pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown, but the Sun Devils responded with consecutive touchdown drives.
The first scoring drive was almost all Wilkins, as he rushed or pass on the final seven snaps of a 9-play, 65-yard drive, culminating in a 3-yard scoring toss to Kyle Williams. After forcing a Fresno State three-and-out, Arizona State took the lead when Eno Benjamin covered the final 30 yards on an 8-play, 58-yard march. Benjamin’s 17-yard touchdown run not only gave his team the lead, it handed him the Arizona State single-season rushing record at 1,585 yards.
Fresno State answered with a 9-play, 75-yard drive, seven of them runs. Rivers ran for gains of 19 and 15 yards to open the drive, then quarterback McMariyon finished the drive with a 10-yard keeper, putting the Bulldogs back in front at 17-14 with 8:03 left in the first half.
Arizona State consumed nearly the remainder of the half, piecing together a marathon 17-play, 72-minute drive. Rather than go for a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Edwards, foreshadowing another un-Vegas-like decision, opted for a 20-yard Ruiz field goal with 51 seconds left in the first half.