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No fear in Fresno

Bulldogs' Hill relishes chance to schedule USC

Posted: Thursday February 17, 2005 2:11PM; Updated: Thursday February 17, 2005 2:16PM
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Pat Hill
Is this the year Pat Hill's Bulldogs dethrone Boise State in the WAC?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Wanted: Division I-A opponent to fill open date against two-time defending national champion. Interested team must be willing to play at hostile 90,000-seat stadium against a team with 17 returning starters, including the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Team must also be willing to play on Nov. 19, during the stretch run of conference season, rather than September.

Interested parties should contact USC.

So, what coach in his right mind would take an offer like that?

"Bring it on," said notoriously fearless Fresno State coach Pat Hill. "Why not?"

Throughout his eight years with the Bulldogs, Hill has been outspoken in his willingness to play anyone, anywhere, anytime -- a philosophy that's seen Fresno travel to Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Kansas State and Colorado the past five seasons. And it's not like they do it just for the paycheck: Including bowl games, Fresno is 10-8 against BCS-conference opponents since 2000.

So when it became known that the Trojans were looking to fill an open date on next season's schedule (USC is allowed a 12th game next year because they're playing at Hawaii), Hill, to no one's surprise, jumped at the opportunity.

"We've been trying to play them for the last two or three years," he said. "They're the best team in Division I football by far right now -- I've got a great deal of respect for that program. And they're in California. We want to see how we measure up."

No one's measured up to the Trojans in the last 20 games, and it may be that no one does again next year, what with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett, et al. returning. What you may not realize, though, is that at least in terms of returning players, Fresno may be the toughest foe on USC's schedule.

No disrespect to Cal, Arizona State, UCLA or Oregon, but it's quite possible the Bulldogs will enter the fall ranked higher than any of them. Hill's team returns 17 starters from a squad that went 9-3 and finished 22nd in the AP poll, ending the year on a six-game winning streak and beating No. 18 Virginia 37-34 in overtime at the MPC Computers Bowl. And they began the year by clobbering Washington and Kansas State, wins that seemed more impressive before both teams went on to losing seasons.

Among the returnees will be fourth-year starting QB Paul Pinegar, three former 1,000-yard rushers, Bryson Sumlin, Wendell Mathis and Dwayne Wright (who missed last season with a knee injury), all-conference linemen Kyle Young and Ryan Wendell and all-conference defensive tackle Garett McIntyre. It should be Hill's best team since the David Carr-led '01 group that started the year by beating eventual Big 12 champ Colorado, Wisconsin and Oregon State.

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The goal, as it's been every year for Hill, is to reach a BCS bowl game, a barrier previously thought to be unreachable for so-called "non-BCS" teams until Utah shattered that notion last season. To do so, though, Hill knows his team has to go undefeated, and has to do it against a challenging non-conference schedule. In addition to USC, next year's Bulldogs will play out-of-conference games against Oregon and defending MAC champion Toledo.

"The main thing about our schedule every year is it gives us an opportunity, when the season starts, to play for something," said Hill. "If this team can run this table, there's no way they can be denied."

Problem is, as good as the Bulldogs look on paper, they're not even the top dog in their own conference. That label, until proven otherwise, belongs to Boise State, which has won 26 consecutive WAC conference games and four straight against the Bulldogs, ending last season 11-1 and ranked 12th in the country. In an interesting schedule quirk, Fresno, normally accustomed to playing its toughest games early in the season, faces Boise State and USC on consecutive weekends in mid-November.

In the past, Hill's teams have shown a mysterious tendency to stumble in October (5-9 since '01) -- a problem he attributes in part to a letdown after facing several bigger-name opponents in September -- only to dominate in November and December, going 20-2 over the same span. "The thing I like about this schedule," said Hill, "is it gives us a chance to build toward something [later in the season] for the first time since I've been here."

Hill is convinced, understandably, that anything less than a perfect record will keep the Bulldogs out of the BCS. But there's no predicting how the polls will treat them. Last year, Louisville lost a mid-October game to Miami but still managed to finish 10th in the final BCS standings. If Fresno suffers an early-season loss but winds up knocking off both Boise State and USC, who's to say they wouldn't finish in the top six?

Of course, this scenario is based on the widely held but potentially incorrect assumption that the Trojans will be undefeated by the time Fresno State comes calling. "I hope they crush everybody [coming into the game]," Hill said.

"I've studied USC tape. Man, are they good. I'm excited about it."