Fresno State

Steve Cameron: Hill has his Dogs back, and he loves 'em

Steve Cameron

FRESNO -- Talk about a strange request.

Pat Hill gathered his troops at halftime of Saturday's shootout with Kansas State and asked for something quite specific.

"Let me go tell everyone the story of this team," he said. "Let me do that."

Hill's Bulldogs were leading 31-21 at the time, and the longtime coach knew in his gut that his guys were up to finishing the job.

And he was dying to share his feelings about this remarkable group with the public.

So all he was asking, really, was for more of the same.

He got it, too.

Fresno State raced off and dusted K-State in a 45-29 victory that wasn't ever in doubt once the Dogs wiped out an early 14-3 deficit with four consecutive first-half touchdowns.

Hill knew early in the third quarter that he'd have his chance to talk about this team he's come to admire.

The Dogs drove the length of the field with the second-half kickoff, broke K-State's will with a TD to make it 37-21 and never looked back.

"That was the ballgame," Hill said. "If a team is going to make a stand, it happens on the first possession of the third quarter.

"K-State would have been back in the game with a stop, but instead, we went right down and scored. It was a beatdown after that. No doubts."

No, except for exactly what Hill wanted to say when he finally got a chance to address the media.

Like most coaches, Pat generally is still pumped full of adrenaline right after a game, so it's tough for him to switch off his game face.

Even when he wants to be a bit more conversational, the guy struggles to keep from sounding brusque.

In this case, maybe that was a good thing -- because if the time and place had been right for Hill to open his heart, the world might actually have seen a tear.

Pat Hill quite simply loves this football team.

With good reason, too.

Remember, the entire Bulldog universe collapsed a year ago -- when a senior-laden club with plenty of talent and huge expectations hit some rough spots and then did something totally stunning.

That bunch just quit on Hill.

For a man who's built a well-deserved reputation for year-in, year-out toughness -- and national acclaim for playing the best teams he can find no matter when or where -- that 4-8 nightmare in 2006 was a gut shot.

It also put the Fresno State program under a shadow.

Hawaii and Boise State were going to be the WAC's glamor teams from the get-go this season, and for good reason.

So the Dogs, with their usual brutal non-conference schedule, weren't expected to be conference contenders -- but there were plenty of doomsayers ready to throw dirt on Fresno State if Hill suffered another poor season.

Even some of the Bulldog faithful had to be wondering.

That's life in a mid-major conference. Bouquets and applause are great when you're going good, but skeptics are waiting around every corner.

One bad year and you're on the brink. Two, and nobody even remembers your school colors.

Hill's emotions right now trace back -- in part -- to the legacy heaped on this remarkably young 2007 team.

It might be a stretch to say the kids were being asked to save the program...

But not by much.

And against that backdrop, these Dogs have been buried by bad luck.

There was precious little experience around, and then two key players -- receiver Chastin West and middle linebacker Aji Lane -- were lost before the first game.

Every week since, more guys have gone down. And amazingly, somebody new and tough enough to be Hill's kind of Bulldog keeps stepping into the breach.

Even against Kansas State, star tight end Bear Pascoe sat it out, frosh running back sensation Ryan Mathews had to be used sparingly and all-purpose threat Clifton Smith hurt his hip in the second quarter.

"It's kind of unbelievable," said quarterback Tom Brandstater, "but whenever we lose guys or we face adversity, somebody comes in and keeps it going."

Fresno State is 7-4 with a very winnable game at New Mexico State remaining -- and only a dicey call in overtime at Texas A&M keeps that record from being 8-3.

The Dogs have won at Nevada, scared Hawaii witless with a late rally in Honolulu and -- even more important -- played like those Fresno State teams that the big-name schools have always seemed to avoid.

Oh, and they've clinched a bowl bid.

"These guys," Hill said, "are the definition of resilience. And nobody outside the program -- nobody -- realizes everything they've been through."

Hill paused and finally softened his voice.

"This team has restored respect for Fresno State football and what it means," he said.

Some people view Hill as perpetually gruff, but what they're actually seeing is a man who cares about what he's built -- and whose pride was horribly wounded a year ago.

And now a group of young men have gone to battle, refused to give an inch -- and returned the snarl to Hill's program.

Once again, seeing Fresno State on the schedule means fearing for your health as much as your won-lost record.

Hill has his Dogs back.

No wonder he loves 'em.

Steve Cameron is the Sun-Star sports editor. He can be reached at">