A year ago, they were home watching after a losing season. They came to Honolulu as the Mountain West Conference champions. Among the players they return are Carr and Davante Adams, a freshman receiver and perhaps the most dynamic player on the team.
"I'm so excited for next season," Carr said.
He'd also like to forget as quickly as possible what SMU's defense did to the Bulldogs on national television Christmas Eve in a 43-10 victory.
Carr was sacked seven times, more than double what Fresno State had given up all year. Fresno State managed only one touchdown, when Adams wrapped his arm around the head of Chris Parks and pulled in a 6-yard pass with one hand and his foot dragging toward the line. The Bulldogs had minus-16 yards rushing, and even taking away the yardage lost from Carr getting sacked, they managed only 25 yards from their running backs.
Yes, they're looking forward to next year. But coach Tim DeRuyter hopes they can learn something from this debacle.
"Hopefully it'll be a launching pad for next year," DeRuyter said after a 9-4 season. "Our guys need to realize we didn't finish and as far as we've made some progress, we're not where we need to be. We need to be able to finish games at the end of the year, and this offseason we're going to find a way to finish these games."
Defensive end Margus Hunt set the tone by forcing two fumbles that led to field goals and two sacks, one for a safety, that staked the Mustangs (7-6) to a 22-0 halftime lead and sent them on their way to a third bowl win in the last four years.
Fresno State has lost its last four bowls.
It lost the turnover margin with two fumbles and two interceptions. Worse yet, SMU never let the Bulldogs get into any kind of a rhythm offensively, shutting down the running game and making Carr run for his life every time he dropped back to pass.
"We didn't protect very well and when those things happen, you turn the ball over and give people short fields and quick scores and the game got away from us," DeRuyter said. "We didn't do an effective job protecting all day."
The Mustangs also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, giving them eight for the season to tie the NCAA record set last year by Southern Miss. Hayden Greenbauer picked off Carr and returned it 83 yards with 1:14 left, the final blow to a miserable night for the Bulldogs (9-4).
Garrett Gilbert was effective with his arm and his legs, running for a 17-yard touchdown for the first score of the game and throwing a perfect strike to Darius Johnson for a 21-yard score to answer the Bulldogs' only touchdown. He rushed for 98 yards on 18 carries and threw for 212 yards.
But this game was decided by the Mustangs' defense, with Hunt leading the way. He was voted the game's MVP.
Fresno State, which had averaged just over 47 points in its last five games, was held scoreless in the first half for the first time in two years.
The Mustangs were playing in a school-record fourth straight bowl game since ending a 25-year drought dating to its infamous NCAA death penalty. They have won three of those bowl games, twice as big underdogs to explosive offenses—a 45-10 win over Nevada in 2009 and Monday against Fresno State, both in the Hawaii Bowl.
Hunt's speed made all the difference in his final college game as he bullied his way through and around lineman and harassed Carr all night. Carr finished with 362 yards on 33-of-54 passing. The 10 points were the fewest Fresno State has scored since a 20-10 loss to Boise State this year.
The Bulldogs hardly looked like a team averaging 488 yards a game. Carr spent more time on his back than stepping into throws as the Mustangs' defensive front—particularly Hunt—was overwhelming.
And when tight end Marcel Jensen dropped Carr's short pass in the end zone on the final play of the opening period, it marked the first time Fresno State was shut out in the first half since it lost to Boise State in 2010.
That was the only time the Bulldogs even came close to scoring in the first half.
After a dull, scoreless opening quarter, Gilbert shook off one tackle and scored on a 17-yard run. The defense took over from there.
Hunt blew past right tackle Alex Fifita and blindsided Carr, dropping him flat as the ball came loose and was scooped up by Aaron Davis, who returned it 23 yards to the Fresno State 16 until he fumbled it out of bounds. SMU had to settle for a field goal. On the next series, Carr scrambled backward and couldn't escape an 18-yard sack to the 6, and then Hunt sacked him in the end zone for a safety.
Hunt wasn't finished, though. On second-and-7 from the 33, Carr gave it to Robbie Rouse on a delayed handoff, right about the time Hunt showed up to disrupt the play and cause another fumble that Taylor Reed recovered.