Surviving double OT: Fresno State edges Eastern Washington with game-winning interception

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FINAL: FRESNO STATE 34, EASTERN WASHINGTON 31

Fresno State survived a major scare before a sellout crowd at Valley Children’s Stadium the Bulldogs in danger of losing to a Football Championship Subdivision program.

Despite having won 17 straight games against FCS opponents — and typically beating them in convincing fashion — the Bulldogs found themselves needing double overtime on Saturday night to prevail before the announced crowd of 41,031.

They also needed the heroic play of Fresno State’s top defensive player to stay undefeated.

Bulldogs linebacker Levelle Bailey, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week, came up with a game-winning interception in double overtime and sealed Fresno State’s narrow victory.

Bailey snagged the pick near the Bulldogs sideline while Eastern Washington quarterback Kekoa Visperas tried to throw under heavy pressure.

On the previous possession of double OT, Fresno State kicker Dylan Lynch redeemed himself by converting a 25-yard field goal that gave Fresno State its first lead in overtime.

Lynch had missed a 35-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, which would’ve given the Bulldogs the the win.

Despite the rough outing, Fresno State (2-0) remained undefeated after two games for the first time since Bulldogs great Derek Carr was quarterback in 2013.

In addition, Fresno State has won 12 straight games dating to last season.

Fresno State also extended its win streak to 18 games against FCS foes.

HEADING TO DOUBLE OT

After surrendering a touchdown to begin overtime, Fresno State responded with a touchdown on its own to force double OT.

EASTERN WASHINGTON SCORES FIRST IN OT

Fresno State was in danger of losing its home opener to an FCS program.

After the Bulldogs missed a game-winning kick near the end of regulation, Eastern Washington scored a touchdown on the first possession of overtime.

Fresno State has a chance to tie the game, given a possession of its own in overtime.

HEADING INTO OT AFTER MISSED KICK

Fresno State found itself going into overtime against the FCS program Eastern Washington after the Bulldogs missed a chance to win it with a kick.

Bulldogs sophomore kicker Dylan Lynch lined up for a 35-yard field goal with 12 seconds left then proceeded to sail the ball wide right.

So instead of getting to celebrate winning Fresno State’s home opener, the Bulldogs had to survive overtime with the game tied 24-24.

Fresno State is trying to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2013, which was the final season of Bulldogs star quarterback Derek Carr.

FRESNO STATE TIES SCORE

Fresno State put together some semblance of a drive and was able to tie the score at 24 on a 44-yard field goal by Dylan Lynch with 6:44 remaining. The question now is whether the Bulldogs can get a quick stop.

BULLDOGS LOSING

Eastern Washington is in with a chance at pulling off a major upset, taking a 24-21 lead on a 33-yard run with 10:01 to go. The Eagles were a 30-.5 point underdog at kickoff.

MADE A BREAK

Eastern Washington attempted to convert that 4th-and-4 from the 27, but misfired on a pass play and the Bulldogs will take over with a 21-17 lead and 14:54 remaining.

BULLDOGS IN BIG TROUBLE

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene just turned it over, throwing an interception on the Bulldogs’ side of the field and Eastern Washington has a chance to make things very uncomfortable in the fourth quarter for a sellout crowd.

The Eagles will start the final quarter with a 4th-and-4 at the Fresno State 27.

EAGLES CUT IT TO 21-17

Eastern Washington has cut the Bulldogs lead to 21-17 on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Eftum Chism III with 3:06 remaining in the third quarter, and the Fresno State defense is having some issues all of a sudden.

In the second half, the Eagles are averaging 7.2 yards per play and have out together touchdown drive of 7 plays and 62 yards and 11 plays and 75 yards.

SOLD IT OUT

Fresno State announced the game as a sellout, with 41,031 tickets out. It is the Bulldogs’ first sellout for a season opening game since playing Nebraska in 2014.

BULLDOGS HAVE AN ANSWER

Fresno State has extended its lead to 21-10, scoring on a 29-yard pass from Mikey Keene to Erik Brooks with 8:01 remaining in the third quarter.

Keene is now 12 of 22 for 117 yards with two touchdowns, and tight end Tre Watson had three catches on the drive for 11, 14 and 3 yards.

BULLDOGS PLAYING WAY INTO TROUBLE

Eastern Washington has closed to 14-10 with 11:15 remaining in the third quarter, scoring on a 12-yard run by quarterback Michael Wortham to cap a 62-yard scoring drive.

It was set up partially by another short punt by Carson King - 32 yards. But the Eagles also hit a 23-yard pass play and had a 14-yard run on the drive.

TURNING UP THE D

The Bulldogs after allowing a field goal at the end of a 21-play, 85-yard series have allowed just 31 yards on 18 plays over the past five Eastern Washington drives.

Linebacker Levelle Bailey has six tackles including four solo and one tackle for loss. The Bulldogs have four TFLs, by Bailey, tackle Johnny Hudson Jr., tackle Dupre Mendoza and nickel Morice Norris.

The Eagles have 133 yards on offense in 43 plays, an average of just 3.1 per play.

WHERE THE BALL IS GOING

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene is 7 of 15 for 48 yards with one touchdown. Here is where the ball has gone:

Erik Brooks: 4 targets, 2 catches, 11 yards

Mac Dalena: 3 targets, 1 catch, 16 yards

Tre Watson: 3 targets, 1 catch, 7 yards

Jake Boust: 1 target, 1 catch, 6 yards and a TD

Elijah Gilliam: 1 target, 1 catch, 4 yards

Jalen Moss: 2 targets, 1 catch, 4 yards

AT THE HALF

Fresno State leads 14-3 at halftime, but its offense is scuffling a bit with just 141 yards on 30 plays. It is averaging 4.7 yards per play against, no offense, a FCS defense.

The Bulldogs’ yards per play in their past games against FCS opponents:

Cal Poly in 2022 - 7.2

Cal Poly in 2021 - 10.1

Sacramento State in 2019 - 5.8

Idaho in 2018 - 6.7

Incarnate Word in 2017 - 8.0

The Bulldogs also have rushed the ball 15 times for 93 yards, but 49 of those yards cane in two plays, a 33-yard run by wideout Mac Dalena and a 16-yard run by Elijah Gilliam.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

Boise State lost at home to Central Florida 18-16 and is now 0-2.

‘DOGS DEFENSE WITH SECOND THREE-AND-OUT

Fresno State has the football back, taking over at its 37-yard line after the defense forced Eastern Washington into a second three-and-out series in a row.

Since the Eagles kicked a field goal at the end of a 21-play drive, they have run just eight plays and gained seven yards in three series resulting in a lost fumble, a punt and another punt.

POINTS PER PLAY

Fresno State has 14 points, and run 12 plays from scrimmage.

KEENE TD PASS EXTENDS BULLDOGS LEAD

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene hit tight end Jake Boust with a 6-yard touchdown pass to extend the Bulldogs’ lead to 14-3 with 13:31 remaining in the second quarter.

The touchdown reception was the first for Boust, a Sanger High graduate. The drive was a short one (4 plays, 20 yards), following a fumble recovery by defensive end Kemari Munier-Bailey.

Keene is 3 of 5 for 22 yards and one touchdown.

The Bulldogs’ quarterback started the day tied for 10th in the nation with four TD passes.

TAKEAWAY NO. 1

Fresno State has its first takeaway of the season, coming on a fumble recovery by defensive end Kemari Munier-Bailey at the Eastern Washington 20-yard line.

EAGLES HAVE BALL BACK

Eastern Washington has the football back, and will start from its 22-yard line. Fresno State punter Carson King missed an opportunity to put some distance between Eastern Washington and the end zone, but on 4th-down hit a punt that traveled only 23 yards.

King came into the game ranked eighth in the Mountain West, averaging 40.3 yards per punt. In his first five punts this season, three have gone less than 40 yards (39, 33 and 23 yards) and a fourth went 40, but lacked hang time and was returned at Purdue for 29 yards, setting up a Boilermakers’ touchdown.

EAGLES PUT DRIVE TOGETHER, GET FG

Eastern Washington kicker Soren McKee hit a 24-yard field goal with 2:40 remaining in the first quarter to cut the Fresno State lead to 7-3, capping a monster 21-play, 85-yard drive that took 8:51 off the clock.

The Eagles on the drive converted a 3rd-and-19, a 3rd-and-7 and two 4th-and-1 plays.

The drive is the longest drive by number of plays against the Bulldogs’ defense this season.

In the opener, Purdue had one drive of 10 or more plays - it had a 13-play, 74-yard drive that ended on downs.

SHORT FIELD, FAST TOUCHDOWN

Fresno State is off and running, turning a defensive stop into a quick touchdown and 7-0 lead. Running back Elijah Gilliam scored the touchdown on a 5-yard run with 11:34 remaining in the first quarter.

It is the second career rushing touchdown for Gilliam, who had one last season in a 55-13 victory over Hawaii.

Fresno State took possession at the Eastern Washington 42-yard line after the Eagles were stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run play by linebacker Levelle Bailey.

Fans begin to line up at the gate before the start of Fresno State’s home opener against Eastern Washington at Valley Children’s Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Fans were encouraged to wear white for the “White out” game.
Fans begin to line up at the gate before the start of Fresno State’s home opener against Eastern Washington at Valley Children’s Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Fans were encouraged to wear white for the “White out” game.

PRE-GAME READING

Fresno State will have its renovated suites at Valley Children’s Stadium open on Saturday for a home opener against Eastern Washington — the first step in a tiered approach to upgrading a venue that university officials past and present have let fall into a dismal state.

It also is taking aim at the next target on a long list of planned facilities improvements, identifying revenue sources to augment the $250,000 to $300,000 a year generated from the suite upgrades to fund a renovation of seating in the north end zone.

“This is the start, not the finish,” athletics director Terry Tumey said.

That north end zone renovation is expected to include premium seating opportunities, as well as new restroom facilities and concessions stand. The project will require CSU approval to move forward, and is not expected to be started until after the 2024 football season at the earliest.

But athletics also has targeted an expansion of the Ricchiuti Strength and Conditioning Center, another piece of a campaign to upgrade athletics facilities that started with the Morse Wittwer Sports Performance Center.

The way the Bulldogs’ Elevate campaign is structured, projects can run concurrently. If upgrades to softball or another program’s facilities are funded, that phase of the project can move forward.

“The thing that we are looking at, of course, is the north end zone project, but there also are considerations of other things that would truly impact the student-athlete experience and we have to figure out which of those that we can move forward with the fastest,” Tumey said. “We know this is an arms race. We’re in the race, so we need to move forward with things that can happen quickly. The north end zone project of course will generate more revenue for us to do other projects, and we do appreciate that.”

“Whether it’s the weight room, whether it’s baseball, whether it’s tennis, all of these things are possibilities. We just have to continue to press and move forward.”

FRESNO STATE vs. EASTERN WASHINGTON

When: Saturday, 6 p.m.

Where: Valley Children’s Stadium

TV: UniMas (Jessi Losada)

  • Find it fast: AT&T Uverse (3005), Comcast (669), DirecTV (408), Dish Network (830)

Streaming: Mountain West Network

  • Find it fast: themw.com/watch/

Radio: Bulldog Sports Network (Paul Loeffler, Pat Hill, Cam Worrell)

  • Find it fast: Fresno (1340AM, 1400AM, 96.7FM), Stockton (1280AM), Modesto (92.9FM), Bakersfield (970AM).

The records: Fresno State (1-0); Eastern Washington (0-1)

The coaches: Jeff Tedford (37-18 in fifth season at Fresno State, 119-75 in 16th season overall); Aaron Best (44-26 in seventh season at Eastern Washington).

The series: 0-0, first meeting

The Line: Fresno State -30.5

ROTATION SHIFT AT RUNNING BACK?

Fresno State running backs Malik Sherrod and Devon Rivers were banged up in the Bulldogs’ season-opening victory at Purdue, and one or both could be held out Saturday with a game at Arizona State up next.

But if they are back, it will be interesting to see how or if the running back rotation might shift after Elijah Gilliam came off the bench and rushed for 93 yards, caught a screen pass for a first down and also was strong in pass protection, which helped quarterback Mikey Keene hit 16 of 20 passes when the Boilermakers threw a blitz at him.

Fresno State running back Elijah Gilliam led the Bulldogs with 93 rushing yards in a season-opening 39-35 victory at Purdue.
Fresno State running back Elijah Gilliam led the Bulldogs with 93 rushing yards in a season-opening 39-35 victory at Purdue.

Sherrod and Rivers were No 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart for Purdue and are listed there again for Eastern Washington, though the Bulldogs seldom make changes in season unless a player is obviously out with an injury.

Gilliam last season was used primarily as a hammer in short-yardage situations and in the fourth-quarter in putting down games the Bulldogs had a lead, and in the victory at Purdue he was 2 for 2 converting on short-yardage runs on third downs, picking up a 3rd-and-2 and a 3rd-and-1..

But he proved there is more to him.

“I thought he played great, really,” Tedford said. “He ran hard, made some people miss and had good vision. I think one of the key plays in the game was 3rd-and-15 and we threw him a screen and he got stopped at like 14 yards and his second effort got us a first down. That was a big play.

“But he was prepared. That’s what we talk to our team about all the time - you never know when your chance is going to come, and he took full advantage of it and did a really nice job for us.”

RUNNING MAN

No matter what order Bulldogs running backs coach Aaron Prier deploys his backs or who gets the most snaps, this could be a very productive game for them.

Eastern Washington is coming off a rough year with its run defense — it allowed 289 yards per game on the ground — and in an opening 35-10 loss to No. 2 North Dakota State it allowed 337 rushing yards.

That included touchdown runs of 70 and 54 yards, but even taking those explosive plays out of the equation the Bison rushed for an average of 5.8 yards per play.

ATTENDANCE WARS

Fresno State, which has its sights set on leading the Group of Five in attendance, is expecting a crowd in the high 30,000 range and could sell out its home opener.

Here is what they have to beat, from Week 1

36,075 - Appalachian State

31,497 - Colorado State

30,335 - Southern Miss

30,142 - Air Force

No team in the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA or the Mid American Conference hit 30,000 at home in the first full week of the season.

East Carolina, which was No. 2 in the Group of Five a year ago, gets Marshall at home on Saturday after opening its season on the road.

A more intriguing comparison might be attendance and percentage of seats sold for the Pac-12 programs that jumped to the Big 12, three of which opened with home games.

Arizona - 48,159; 95%

Arizona State - 47,773; 89%

Utah - 53,644; 100%

Colorado, the fourth Pac-12 school to bolt for the Big 12, plays Nebraska at home this week. The game is sold out.

KEENE ON BIG CROWDS

Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene transferred in from Central Florida, where he played in one of the more raucous stadiums in the Group of Five, FBC Mortgage Stadium, also known as the Bounce House.

The Knights last season led the Group of Five in attendance, averaging 41,542. The Bulldogs were third at 39,067.

What is Keene expecting in his new home?

“I’m expecting it to be an electric atmosphere,” said Keene, who passed for 366 yards and four touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ season-opening 39-35 victory at Purdue. “In all honesty, I’ve heard a lot of great things about Valley Children’s Stadium, Bulldog Stadium. I know Bulldogs’ fans love their Bulldogs. I know they love football. I don’t know what else is going on Saturday night, but I’m pretty sure we’re the only thing that’s popping in town.

It should be a great atmosphere, first home game. We’re excited to get everyone out there.”

MATURITY TEST

Fresno State has won 17 games in a row against FCS opponents, the last nine by an average margin of 36.9 points. How locked in will they be in this game against a lower-division team, particularly with another big opportunity against a Pac-12 school at Arizona State up next?

“We just need to treat every week like Purdue,” center Jacob Isaia said. “It doesn’t matter who we play. We can’t falter. We can’t play down to anybody’s level. We have to play to our standards and sometimes above that.”

QUICK HITTERS

Fresno State, which received a $1.3 million guarantee game check from Purdue, will pay Eastern Washington $300,000 for this game, plus 500 complimentary tickets.

The Bulldogs last season ranked ninth in the Mountain West Conference, allowing 16 runs of 20 or more yards. In their victory at Purdue, the Boilermakers had just one.

Eastern Washington is 11-29 all-time against FBS opponents, its most recent victory coming at UNLV in double overtime in 2021. The Eagles have pulled off some bigger victories, beating Washington State in 2016 and Oregon State in 2013.

The Bulldogs have run 98 plays in a row without a pre-snap penalty on the offense, dating to the L.A. Bowl victory over Washington State. That might not sound like a lot, but Fresno State in a victory over Wyoming last season ran just 66 plays and was penalized four times for false starts.

Fresno State, somewhat surprisingly, has not started a season 2-0 since 2013 when a team led by Derek Carr and Davante Adams opened with 10 victories in a row. There have been some painfully close Week 2 losses for the Bulldogs the past few years - 35-32 to Oregon State last season, 31-24 at No. 22 Oregon in 2021, 38-35 to Minnesota in 2019 and 21-14 at Minnesota in 2018.