FRESNO, Calif. (AP)—Coach Pat Hill prefers a high degree of difficulty for his season openers at Fresno State. This one wasn’t difficult at all, but Hill still came out pleased with his Bulldogs’ performance.
Clifton Smith made two long punt returns for touchdowns, Wendell Mathis rushed for three scores and 24th-ranked Fresno State began a much-anticipated season with a 55-17 victory over Weber State on Saturday night.
Paul Pinegar went 14-of-18 for 189 yards and two TDs in his 25th victory as a starter, leading Fresno State to a 42-3 lead before halftime against the Division I-AA Wildcats (1-1).
While Weber State didn’t exactly provide one of Fresno State’s usual early-season non-conference tests, the Bulldogs won their seventh straight game with an offense that looks just as powerful as most expected. Fresno State scored touchdowns on six of its first seven possessions.
“It was good to see us come out for the first game and not miss a beat offensively,” Pinegar said. “We came away believing we can execute our offense any time.”
The victory might be costly for Fresno State’s defense, however: Garrett McIntyre, a star lineman and the preseason WAC defensive player of the year, was taken to the locker room on a cart after spraining his left ankle on the last play of the third quarter.
Hill was cautiously optimistic McIntyre will play next week, but he’ll be re-evaluated on Monday.
Smith, the Bulldogs’ third-string tailback, provided two impressive highlights. He returned a second-quarter punt 92 yards for a score, cutting straight through the heart of Weber State’s coverage team—and Smith then topped himself with a weaving, herky-jerky 84-yard return in the third quarter, breaking several tackles before reaching midfield and sprinting to the goal line.
“When I got here, I wanted to establish myself as one of the best returners in college football,” Smith said. “I really don’t know what I did and how I did it. It just happened.”
Smith became the first Fresno State player to return two punts for scores in the same game, and his 189 yards on returns also were a school record.
Fresno State, ranked in the AP’s preseason poll for the first time, gets a more typically tough assignment next week at Oregon, followed 10 days later by a Tuesday-night home game against Toledo.
“The tests will get more difficult as we go, and this week in Eugene, we’ve got a very tough test for us,” Hill said. “I’d rather come out of the gates with a big game … (but) the first half was pretty darn good football.”
This one turned into a laugher early: After Mathis’ TD dive on the opening drive, Tyrone Culver intercepted Ian Pizarro’s pass on Weber State’s first play. Seven seconds later, Pinegar connected with Jaron Fairman for a 28-yard score down the Weber State sideline.
Mathis had a 26-yard scoring run late in the first quarter, and Adam Jennings later caught a beautiful 36-yard TD pass from Pinegar. Fresno State was up by 39 points when Pizarro hit Lynzell Jackson for a 32-yard score 22 seconds before halftime.
“Their defensive backs couldn’t cover us, and we knew that coming in,” Jennings said.
Pizarro went 23-for-42 for 261 yards and two TDs for the Wildcats, who beat Western State 61-0 last week in their opener.
“Not only were they a better football team, they were better than us mentally and physically,” Weber State coach Ron McBride said. “We did some things mentally that were uncalled for, and just put us in a hole.”
Mathis has scored 11 touchdowns in his last six games dating to last season, when Fresno State rode its late-season momentum to a 37-34 overtime victory over Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise.
Mathis had 77 yards on just 14 carries—running so well that Bryson Sumlin, the other half of Fresno State’s vaunted senior tailback tandem, didn’t even get the ball until the second half. Sumlin finished with 68 yards rushing.
Pinegar has 19 TD passes and just three interceptions in the seven games since Fresno State’s three-game losing streak last season, when fans booed the veteran quarterback and called for his ouster.
The game was a family reunion for McBride. His son-in-law, John Baxter, is Fresno State’s longtime associate head coach and special teams coordinator.
“Fresno State does a good job with special teams. They are well-coached,” McBride said.