Ron Agostini

Win is all that matters

FRESNO -- By now, Fresno State junior Tom Brandstater must have figured he would own Fresno. All of it, down to its last raisin.

He learned as Paul Pinegar's understudy. He bided his time, waiting for the moment he would become the quarterback of the "valley's team." The attraction was clear: When you're the quarterback for the Bulldogs, you make friends fast.

You can inspire critics, too.

Brandstater, Turlock High's connection to Bulldog Land, occupies the middle ground these days. He hasn't produced enough to be anointed, nor has he been chased home in disgrace.

Since he was handed the keys to the Fresno State offense in 2006, the Bulldogs are 6-10, ugly numbers enhanced Saturday night by a 17-6 victory over Louisiana Tech. Savvy observers will cut Brandstater some slack. Last fall, the Fresno State seniors essentially mailed in the finish to their respective careers. This season, the Bulldogs are too young to even locate the post office.

So, locked in limbo, go Brandstater and the Bulldogs. They're in no position to be choosy here. They'll accept their 1-0 record in the Western Athletic Conference because 0-1 would have plunged the Fresnans toward a second consecutive year of strife.

The win also bought more time for Brandstater. Time to hone his skills, time to connect with new teammates, time to be what coach Pat Hill envisioned.

"That (the win) is all I care about," Brandstater said afterward. "The numbers (8 for 22 for 92 yards) were terrible on my behalf. But I don't really care. We got a win. We struggled offensively the entire game. We didn't play the way we wanted to. But we made enough plays to win."

Brandstater has packed a lot of stress into his season-plus tenure as the keeper of the Bulldog offense. He's been benched, reinstated, coronated as the next star and dismissed by some fans as a less-than-optimum quarterback.

It comes with the territory here. The Fresno State media relations gang went out of its way to point out how many of their quarterbacks turned in their best seasons during year No. 2 as a starting quarterback. The list virtually glows in the dark: Jeff Tedford, Kevin Sweeney, Mark Barsotti, Trent Dilfer, Billy Volek, David Carr and Pinegar.

Brandstater, knee-deep in his second year, is expected to lengthen that entry. Simply, he's expected to succeed because, well, Fresno State quarterbacks are supposed to succeed. It's in their DNA.

His problem, or at least one of his problems, is he lacks the weapons his predecessors enjoyed. Behind him is running-back-by-committee. To his flanks are receivers armed with hot-off-the-presses high-school diplomas. In front of him is a line brittle with injuries.

Such is the hand dealt to Brandstater. Most poker players would have thrown these cards into the muck after little more than a glance. Alas, the man from Turlock dances with the same old partner and makes the best of it.

The operative word is "patience." Saturday night wasn't pretty. At times, it could have served as a sedative. With 4:17 left in the first half, Brandstater trotted onto his own checker-board end zone while sorry stats blinked from the scoreboard. Not only were the Bulldogs pushed pack inside their own 1-yard line, they had been outgained to that point 192-74 and trailed 6-0.

What followed won't be saved for the College Football Hall of Fame, but Fresno State won't quibble over style points.

"The game is going to be the catalyst for our season, either way, if it's going to be good or bad," Brandstater told The Fresno Bee earlier this week. "We've got to get back on track with a win, and if we start playing like we know we can play, we could have a special season." Finally, midway in third quarter, one of Brandstater's pups made a play. Sophomore wide receiver Jason Crawley snagged a well-throw pass, shed his defender like wind discards fallen leaves, and raced into the end zone for the touchdown that put Fresno State ahead to stay. Brandstater raced toward Crawley to join the celebration as the mood improved in the Dog House. The quarterback carefully managed the rest of the game, and no more was asked of him.

Two weeks ago during the three-overtime loss at Texas A&M, he compiled a career-high 260 yards and three touchdowns. Last week at Oregon, he threw for 219 yards while he absorbed a major-league beating.

To be fully accepted in this town, however, he must win, whether it's Boise State or Louisiana Tech.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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