FRESNO, Calif. — The Bowl Championship Series is safe from Fresno State coach Pat Hill for another year. In just eight days, his Bulldogs went from darlings to doormats.
Consecutive losses to Louisiana Tech and UTEP have ruined another budding dream season for Hill, the inexhaustible standard-bearer for all small-conference schools plotting an assault on the BCS.
Instead, Fresno State (3-2, 0-2) is off to its worst start in conference play since joining the WAC in 1992. Even a sixth straight bowl bid could be a long shot at this point — just eight days after the Bulldogs were ranked 17th.
So how could they lose their edge so quickly, particularly after impressive nonconference road victories over Kansas State and Washington?
For perhaps the first time in his life, Hill is at a loss for words.
"We are not as good a football team as we were earlier in the year," Hill said Saturday night after UTEP held the lead throughout a 24-21 victory at Bulldog Stadium, just Hill's seventh home loss in eight years.
"We came out at a very high level, and we have not reached that again . . . It's hard when you're not even halfway through your season, and you've got people asking you if you're playing for pride."
This abrupt turn of fortune has left the Bulldogs grasping for answers and fighting with each other. The defense is frustrated with the inconsistent offense, while the fans have focused their ire on struggling quarterback Paul Pinegar, who was booed several times during the loss to UTEP.
"Throughout the week, there's fingers being pointed, things being said, and we can't have that," defensive tackle Garrett McIntyre said. "We have to stick together better than we're doing."
In both losses, the Bulldogs showed none of the poise necessary to win close games, making execution mistakes and taking unnecessary penalties. Mostly, they seemed to lack confidence, an odd deficiency in a Hill-coached team.
But nearly everyone believes the problems start with the offense, which managed just 321 yards against UTEP's suspect defense. Fresno State's powerful offensive line has been badly out of sync, and co-starting tailback Wendell Mathis was limited to two rushes after injuring his ribcage in pregame warmups.