Let's look at the key numbers from Wednesday's bowl action.
Including Wednesday night's 30-6 beatdown at the hands of Rice, Fresno State's last two trips to the Hawaii Bowl have finished with losses by a combined score of 73-16.
The Bulldogs have actually lost their last six bowls overall: two upset losses in the New Mexico Bowl, a 40-17 loss in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, a 45-20 loss to USC in last year's Vegas Bowl, and the aforementioned two trips to Hawaii.
That they've made seven bowls in eight years and 14 in 16 tells you this is a healthy program. And that they were able to make a bowl at all (albeit at 6-7) and win another division title despite losing most components of their passing game (quarterback Derek Carr, top two receivers, left tackle) and most of their defensive line is another feather for the cap.
But while bowls are not predictive of future success (or a lack thereof), they set the flavor of the offseason. And Fresno State's offseasons have tasted sour of late.
On Oct. 20, 2012, Rice lost a competitive game at a Tulsa team that would go on to finish 11-3. It was a moral-victory type of loss, but it was a loss, one that dropped the Owls to 2-6 and 12-32 in their last 44 games. After flirting with a breakthrough in the mid-2000s — they went 7-6 in 2006, Todd Graham's lone year in charge, then went 10-3 in 2008 — the program had regressed back toward the mean it had established over the previous four decades.
Since that loss to Tulsa, the Owls are 23-9. (Tulsa is 9-21.) They won five in a row to finish 2012, then won 10 games and a Conference USA title in 2013. In 2014, they replaced their starting quarterback, their leading rusher, and most of their defensive line, and they got blown out four times. (Average score against Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Marshall, and Louisiana Tech: Opponent 51, Owls 18.) They also won nearly every winnable game, blitzed Rice in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, and finished 8-5.
Despite a mid-game lull, Rice was in control from start to finish. The Owls scored two touchdowns in 20 seconds late in the first — a three-play span: 14-yard touchdown pass from Driphus Jackson to Jordan Taylor, J.T. Blasingame interception, 69-yard pass from Jackson to Mario Hull — to go up 16-3. Fresno cut the lead to 16-6 but failed on two opportunities to get closer; the Bulldogs were stopped on fourth-and-1 late in the first half, then had a field goal blocked early in the third quarter. And from there, a young Fresno crumpled. The Bulldogs' final five possessions amassed an interception, two three-and-outs, and three turnovers on downs.
Despite a run-happy reputation, Rice's strength in 2014 was a big-play passing game, and it showed up in Hawaii. Jackson completed 15 of 24 for 318 yards; five Rice players caught a pass, and each had at least one gain of 17-plus.
With 12 minutes left in the Bahamas Bowl, Western Kentucky led Central Michigan, 49-14. The Hilltoppers had already taken their foot off of the accelerator, having scored seven points in the second half after putting up 42 in the first. CMU had punted on its first three post-halftime possessions. There was nothing to suggest this would be anything but a blowout.
Then WKU missed a field goal. CMU went 80 yards in 10 plays. WKU went three-and-out. CMU went 50 yards in five plays. WKU gained 52 yards on a pass from Brandon Doughty to Willie McNeal, but McNeal fumbled at the end of it. CMU went 64 yards in seven plays.
Now, at this point, it was still a two-touchdown WKU lead, and there were only three minutes remaining. CMU was in the process of painting a garbage time masterpiece, but we were still in garbage time. But WKU went three-and-out again (with CMU using only one timeout), and CMU got the ball back with two minutes left. Four plays later, it was 49-42 with 1:09 left.
Still ... WKU recovered the onside kick, went three-and-out again, and punted with just one second left, forcing what was an impossible, 80-yard Hail Mary attempt.
It's hard to score the final 34 points of a given game and lose, but here we are. Following what was basically a Hail Mary, hook-and-ladder, and Cal-Stanford-sans-the-band touchdown, CMU made the worst call in football: an end zone fade from the 3. The receiver cannot get any separation, and the throw the quarterback has to make is the football version of a 25-yard sand wedge chip. You can't go through a full motion, and you can't apply much finesse; you have to make a casual practice lob.
It's an awful play, and it didn't work. So CMU finished on a 34-0 run, not a 36-0 run. The Chippewas scored 34 points in the final 11:37.
This game is destined to end up ranking highly on my Top 100 Games of the Season list, which is hilarious, because for the first 25 minutes of the second half, the announcing team of Steve Levy, Lou Holtz, and Mark May had nothing to talk about. The game was out of reach, and even as CMU started scoring, things were hopeless.
It was a great game because of five interesting minutes and one of the most amazing desperate plays in college football history. The final play of Titus Davis' career was both a touchdown (his fourth of the day, the 37th of his career) and a trip into immortality, even as a loss.
I don't want to ever hear someone saying there are too many bowls again. Every bowl is bonus football and a chance to see something you've never seen before. If we wanted to create 64 bowls and let the two worst teams in the country take each other on from an aircraft carrier or from farmland in the middle of Montana, I would watch, just in case.