Besides a second straight loss to a winless Utah State team, it was the last thing Fresno State wanted to see: Ryan Mathews, the standout freshman running back, writhing in pain on the grass at Bulldog Stadium.
But there he was, lying face down with 6 minutes, 26 seconds to play in the second quarter as three Fresno State trainers rushed to him.
He kept weight off his left ankle as the the trainers guided him off the field, then was carted off to the locker room before halftime. He never returned.
After the game, a 38-27 Fresno State win, Fresno State coach Pat Hill said he was unsure of the specifics, but thought Mathews' ankle was sprained, not broken. Whether he would be back for Saturday's game at No. 12 Hawaii was uncertain. Earlier this season, though, receiver Marlon Moore suffered a sprained ankle and missed two games.
"He's a big part of the offense, so I hope he's ready," running backs coach Tim Skipper said. "If not, we have guys that can pick up the flag."
The Bulldogs likely will suffer if Mathews misses the Hawaii game. He is the team's leading rusher and he tops the nation's freshmen in rushing touchdowns with 12. He came into the game with 645 yards rushing, and ran for another 106 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against Utah State.
Mathews' longest run of the day was a 39-yarder that should have been a 40-yard score. He got a little too happy on his way to the end zone, though, and dropped the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line. The play was ruled a touchdown, but the play was challenged. The touchdown was revoked and the Bulldogs were given the ball on the 1-yard line.
"I told him just keep running up the ramp next time," senior running back Clifton Smith said with a slight grin after the game.
Bulldogs coaches have told their players all season to move on from past mistakes. So they showed confidence in Mathews on the next play, giving the ball right back to him. He responded by leaping over a pile into the end zone.
"The fumble was behind us," Skipper said, "we had to move on to the next [play]."
The pain of Mathews' absence will be magnified if sophomore running back Lonyae Miller does not get healthy this week. Miller started the first seven games but has sat out the past two weeks with a quadriceps muscle injury. His absence last week left Mathews and Smith to carry the running load against Boise State. Without Miller's physical, downhill style to pound the Broncos' defense, the Bulldogs rushed for 89 yards -- their second-lowest rushing total of the season.
Saturday, with Miller and Mathews out, the main threat was Smith, who has been heavily involved in the Bulldogs' offense this season, but in different ways. He has used his speed, quickness and elusive running skills to break to the outside on pitches, squeeze through holes on inside runs and run the option at quarterback in addition to his role as a punt and kick returner.
Saturday, he had career highs in rushing attempts and yards, carrying 27 times for 126 yards. His previous bests were seven carries and 65 yards.
His 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame took several hard hits, but he popped up every time, sometimes with his mouth running instead of his legs. One of the biggest questions heading into this week is if he can handle the pounding as the featured back.
"I'm not worried about my rep as a power back," Smith said with ice wrapped around his right arm. "I had fun even though I got banged up. ... I guess I proved a lot of people wrong today."
Anthony Harding also lined up in the backfield after Mathews' injury. He has been used more as a blocking back and receiver in the flats since the Texas A&M game, when both Miller and Mathews were injured. Harding carried 22 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns in that game, but Mathews still led the team with 66 yards.
"He's the smartest running back we have in the program," Skipper said. "He's the one guy that can do everything."