With less than 20 seconds remaining in the first half of Saturday night’s game against CSU, Fresno State sophomore quarterback Tom Brandstater found freshman Chastin West streaking by the CSU secondary towards the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown pass – all too reminiscent of the 39-yard touchdown pass relinquished by the Rams in the last minute of the second quarter against Nevada in the previous game.
The play gave the Bulldogs a 17-14 lead in what was otherwise an all-around terrific first half by CSU.
However, it was almost impossible not to believe West’s touchdown reception would end up being the play that would deflate the team just enough to lose all the momentum and intensity it needed to pull off an upset in the second half.
It did the opposite. The Rams came out of the locker room on a mission.
CSU (3-1) dominated the third quarter 14-0, capped off by a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by junior Damon Morton, on its way to a 35-23 victory.
Junior quarterback Caleb Hanie played with great poise while turning in his greatest performance yet as a Ram.
His shortest of three touchdown passes, a 14-yard fade to junior Luke Roberts, was only completed because Hanie threw the ball in exactly the correct spot.
The junior faced relentless pressure from the Fresno State pass rush all night and dealt with it perfectly: scrambling for his life to find room to throw on some plays and running down the field for positive yards on others.
CSU’s rushing offense was not great, but it did show flashes of improvement. Sophomore Gartrell Johnson III was handed the ball on a majority of the team’s first down plays and did just enough to open up the passing game for Hanie.
While it was good to know the offense is still capable of putting up big numbers, perhaps the most encouraging performance on Saturday night was the Rams’ defense.
CSU limited the nation’s fifth leading running back, junior Dwayne Wright, to 77 yards on 16 carries – forcing the Bulldogs to several passing situations on third and long.
While junior cornerback Darryl Williams intercepted Brandstater twice in the second half, it was senior linebacker Luke Adkins that led the Rams in both tackles and big hits on the opposing quarterback.
Saturday night’s win proved three things about this team: The Rams are capable of winning on the road in a hostile environment, the defense is deserving of most of its early season accolades and Hanie is capable of carrying the offense on his back.
A loss against Fresno State and CSU would have been in big trouble, beating only a Division I-AA opponent and a winless equivalent.
With the win, CSU looks to be in great shape entering conference play next week at home versus Nevada-Las Vegas.
The victory was also another reminder that Head Coach Sonny Lubick is a football genius.
Lubick was given an extra week to prepare for the Bulldogs and delivered with a 12-point win over a team that was supposed to win by 13.
Football beat writer Sean Star can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.