Bulldogs face one last distraction

BOISE, Idaho -- So this is how Fresno State will go into its final game of the season, and perhaps fittingly so.

Surrounded by more self-inflicted distractions, Fresno State (8-4) will play Georgia Tech (7-5) in the Humanitarian Bowl today with one last barrier to overcome -- the suspension of eight players.

Granted, only one of the suspended players contributed significantly this season, and All-America kick returner A.J. Jefferson already had missed the final two regular-season games because of injury.

So his absence -- along with that of reserve fullback Isaac Kinter, reserve defensive lineman Michael Stuart and five other players who rarely played or already were out with injuries -- might not greatly affect Fresno State's performance.

But Saturday's suspensions, handed out to seven players for missing curfew Friday and another player for violating an athletic department policy, get logged as yet another blow to a season filled with off-the-field problems.

Will this final distraction be too much to overcome?

"I don't think it's a distraction," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said before Sunday's walk-through at Bronco Stadium. "I just think you run your team, and say what you mean and mean what you say."

Fresno State already was the underdog against a Georgia Tech team that appears to be bigger and faster, and will hammer two-time Atlantic Coast Conference leading rusher Tashard Choice against a suspect Bulldogs run defense.

Fresno State initially appeared to have the mental advantage, rolling in with the confidence of two straight wins to end the regular season, the motivation of beginning next year's potentially strong run now and the drive to beat a team from a Bowl Championship Series conference.

But, again, off-the-field problems threaten to affect the Bulldogs' on-the-field performance.

"We had 94 guys here and 86 guys did what they were supposed to do," Hill said. "Each person was talked to individually. The team knew about the whole situation. It's over with."

Fresno State has been dealing with off-the-field issues since the summer.

Linebacker Quaadir Brown and former defensive end Chris Lewis were charged in separate incidents involving their girlfriends. Defensive end Michael Cheese was investigated for possible criminal activity. And defensive tackle Jason Shirley was suspended three times this season, once for allegedly driving under the influence.

The Bulldogs also have had to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the health of defensive coordinator Dan Brown, who had a tumor removed from his head in August.

In addition, Fresno State has dealt with injuries to at least 23 players, including seven starters lost for the year.

Yet, Fresno State has managed to recover from last year's 4-8 season and reach a bowl for the eighth time in nine years.

In Georgia Tech, Fresno State has a chance to beat its first team that is assured of finishing with a winning record and capture perhaps what some might view as the Bulldogs' best win.

Thus far, Fresno State's most-significant wins were against Kansas State (5-7), which once was nationally ranked but won't play in a bowl, and Nevada (6-7), which was shutout 23-0 against New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl and didn't beat a team that had a winning season.

Today is also the first true bowl experience for all but seven Fresno State players.