There are no excuses. There never are from Fresno State coach Pat Hill.
So what he offers when asked about his inconsistent team is an impassioned defense of his players and his program, one that is on the ropes after a 3-5 start. The Bulldogs have been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the nation -- playing exceptionally well at times, but making critical, game-changing mistakes at others.
It has added up to a growing chorus of criticism as the Bulldogs are in danger of missing a bowl game for just the third time in 15 seasons since Hill transformed the program into a consistent winner.
“It’s not lack of effort. These kids have played hard,” Hill said in a phone interview. “We have a chance to be very good still. When we’re playing good, we’re really good. When we make simple mistakes, they burn us at critical times.
“I love this team. This team plays hard, sometimes we just don’t execute at the level we need to execute at. It’s frustrating for me because these kids try so hard, practice so hard and prepare so hard. It’s just one of those years. We’re going through some growing pains with a young team. We’ve always been able to rebound, and we still have five games to go.”
The Bulldogs certainly have shown they are capable of running the table. Every remaining game on the schedule is winnable. After they return from their bye this week, they get Louisiana Tech at home, then go to New Mexico State and Hawaii, before closing out with San Jose State and at San Diego State.
What has been particularly maddening is the way this season set up for Fresno State. The one knock against Hill is that he not won enough conference championships. A big reason is because Fresno State resided in the same conference as Boise State for 10 years. Hill won his only WAC title in 1999 -- before the Broncos joined the league.
But Boise State left this season for the Mountain West, leaving the WAC up for grabs. Fresno State started league play 2-0 but dropped a critical game at Nevada this past weekend that gave the Wolf Pack control of the conference. Fresno State is one of four teams at 2-1.
The game featured plenty of scoring and big plays for the Bulldogs, but also some costly mistakes. The always solid punt coverage team allowed a punt return for a touchdown. Devon Wylie, one of the best punt returners in the nation, muffed a punt that Nevada converted into the go-ahead score. Fresno State forced a late fumble that it could not recover.
That loss was essentially a microcosm of the season. In three of its losses, Fresno State had second-half leads it failed to hold. The Bulldogs led Nebraska 20-14 in the third quarter and played toe-toe with a top-15 team. But they allowed a critical 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to turn the tide.
They led Ole Miss 28-27 midway through the third quarter, but did not score again and lost despite outgaining the Rebels 444-430. About the only game they failed to show up for was against nemesis Boise State, which handed the Bulldogs their worst home loss 57-7. In their last two games, Boise State has beaten Fresno State by a combined 108-7.
“As a team, we wish we could win more games right now, we wish we could have pulled out some of those close ones,” said quarterback Derek Carr, who has thrown for 1,980 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. “It's a tough time to be a Bulldog right now. We're fighting to get to where we have to go, but I have all the confidence in the world with the guys on this team. I love them to death.”
As a result of the disappointing losses, some fans have become increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the program. Hill has given everything he has to Fresno State, and even accepted a 30 percent pay cut in order to help an athletic department and university struggling under the weight of a terrible economy.
He truly loves this program, and it pains him more than anybody to lose this way.
“I’m not fine with where we are,” Hill said. “I’ve been here 15 years. I’m pretty loyal to this group of kids and this program. It drives me nuts that we’re performing in a way that doesn’t make everybody happy. I want to make everybody happy. I want to see the kids I care about so much being happy. Right now, we’re not happy and I don’t like that.”
As for those who have questioned whether he has what it takes to keep building this program, Hill scoffs.
“There’s complaints in every town,” he said. “It’s the world we live in. I don’t get too involved in that stuff. My job is to do everything I can to put this football team in position to win. … I’m committed to this team. I enjoy what I do here. I love this community. I came with the sword in my hand and when you go out, you go out on your sword. Everybody’s day ends some time and I’ll look back and hold my head high. I’m proud of what’s gone on here. Do I want to win every game? Yeah, that’s what everybody expects, and that’s what I want.”