Utah's football team has a number of players who are thought of as thoroughbreds: receivers Kevin Dyson and Daniel Jones, running backs Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Juan Johnson, defensive backs Clarence Lawson and Robert Love. Other Utes seem on their way to stardom: linebacker Phil Glover, quarterback Jonathan Crosswhite.
Fresno State has a big talent in tailback Michael Pittman and some budding stars like sophomore quarterback Billy Volek.But mostly what the 10-point underdog Bulldogs had in their 1997 WAC debut Thursday night on a nationally televised 27-13 embarrassment of the Utes was adherence to a defensive scheme that mercilessly blitzed Utah into a Fresno-record 12 sacks, two lost fumbles and an interception - plus a bunch of lunch-pail heroes starting with linebacker A.J. Gass.
Back on their heels after their opening drive produced their only touchdown, the Utes couldn't convert at critical times, going 3-for-14 on third downs, 1-for-3 on fourth downs. "Third-and-1, third-and-1/2 yard. That's ridiculous. You have to convert that," said coach Ron McBride. "And then, red zone, we were taking field goals instead of going for touchdowns."
Johnson said a noisy Fresno crowd sent Utah to a "silent count" that favored rushing defenders. "By the time he snapped it, there would be three guys in (Cross-white's) face. That crowd was rowdy - the kind you want to play in front of," said Johnson.
"This was a perfect ambush situation for us," said new Fresno coach Pat Hill, a longtime friend and student of McBride and a former Ute assistant. "We were playing at home, played very hard and just took the game from Utah. Our kids rallied to the occasion."
Yes, Gass is a returning All-WAC/Pacific Division choice, but he was once told he wasn't good enough or big enough to play for Fresno State by a defensive coordinator. Gass quit. The coach was later fired, according to the Fresno Bee newspaper. Another story in Friday's Bee tells how, as a high-schooler, Gass wanted to practice so badly that once when his mother and her car were detained at work, he left a note at home saying he was walking to practice - which was 26 miles away. She got home, drove the route and found him still walking 21 miles later, knowing practice was over but determined to accomplish his mission.
Gass was hurt in Fresno's first 1997 game and required six hours of surgery and 50 stitches to repair an injured blood vessel in his right hand. He returned to play Thursday. The Bee says he was in on 72 of 73 defensive plays. He had 12 tackles, five sacks (-22 yards) and a forced fumble.
Gass was the spark, but others with similar heart helped the underdogs detonate the Utes.
Among them was starting freshman linebacker Jake Probst, who made a 9-yard sack that held Utah to a third-quarter field goal when a TD could have cut Fresno's lead to 10, or even nine. Probst, says the Bee, was never recruited by Utah out of Midway's Wasatch High.
Others included first-timer Eric Mahanke (five catches, 43 yards, touchdown), who the Bee says "recruited himself" by sending out video and who was redshirting until Thursday. His first Div. I catch went for 15 yards. His second was a 10-yard TD. He started Thursday because he caught well in practice.
That's what Hill asks - to practice hard. He brought in 52 new players; obviously, the only way to do that is to invite a lot of blue-collar walk-ons. Fresno is 2-3 (1-0 WAC) but thinks it should be 4-1 because it was that close to winning two other games. It unloaded that grief on the unsuspecting Utes, who planned to put the offense in high gear against an undersized defense.
Instead, Fresno's the one that looked good on ESPN with what's called its most spirited win since beating Southern Cal 24-7 in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, and the 3-2, 2-1 Utes are jerked back to their feelings after their season-opening loss to Utah State, their three-game win streak already a distant memory.
INJURIES: Fuamatu-Ma'afala twice sprained an ankle but said it's OK; center Darren Walker dislocated a shoulder; lineman Nate Sybrowsky reinjured an ankle but is likely for next Saturday's home game with Southern Methodist; Lawson has an ankle sprain that's not too bad.