LOGAN — Utah State has had double-digit leads late in the game before — just last week, for example — and still managed to end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard when the clock hit zeroes.
So, with a 23-7 lead and 15 minutes of football left to be played Saturday against Louisiana Tech, USU coach Gary Andersen wasn't about to celebrate.
That mood didn't come until the Aggies had nearly squandered that lead following a flood of injuries to key defensive players.
"We found a way to get them out of a drive," Andersen said of the late-game drama, "and get into victory formation."
It wasn't until Aggie quarterback Diondre Borel took a knee and the clock ran out, with Utah State (2-5, 1-2 WAC) holding on to a narrow 23-21 win over the Bulldogs, that Andersen felt safe.
"Obviously, it was a team victory," Andersen said. "All phases played a key factor, in a good way and a bad way, all the way through the game. It was fantastic to get the win, especially in a close game."
The victory was a much-needed one for Utah State after a pair of WAC victories slipped from its grasp in the final minutes.
But, as is typically the case with USU football, the Aggies found a way to make it interesting.
After a dominating defensive effort through three quarters limited Louisiana Tech to just 108 total yards, the Bulldogs took advantage of some holes in the Aggies' defense created by injuries.
For starters, USU lineback Paul Igboeli saw his streak of 38 consecutive starts end because of a knee injury. Then team caption and senior safety James Brindley pulled a hamstring and was forced from the game in the second quarter.
By the time senior cornerback Kejon Murphy was knocked unconscious and out of the game in the fourth quarter, Utah State was using a handful of players that had seen precious little playing time before Saturday.
It showed as the Bulldogs finally found a way to move the ball and nearly knock off the Aggies.
But the 16-point USU lead was a little too much for LaTech despite the heroics of quarterback Ross Jenkins, who shook off a miserable start to throw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
But his attempt to complete a pass for the Bulldogs' second two-point conversion was no good with 6:15 to play, and the Aggies, despite giving the Bulldogs one final chance to score, held on.
"It was definitely concerning," Andersen said of the close game. "But they kept fighting ... it was still concerning that we couldn't put them away in the fourth quarter."
The second and third quarters, it turned out, were all the offense Utah State needed.
After a scoreless first quarter which saw neither team move the ball much, USU struck first when Borel found Stanley Morrison on a perfectly-placed 41-yard strike.
The Aggies used a pooch kickoff to keep the ball away from LaTech's dangerous kick returner, Phillip Livas, and got a fumble to set up a 28-yard field goal by Chris Ulinski to take a 10-0 lead..
One play later, we saw why the Aggies wanted to keep the ball out of Livas' hands, as he took the next kickoff from five yards deep in the end zone and zigzagged his way downfield for a touchdown to make it 10-7.
But Utah State responded whens Derrvin Speight broke through the line and scampered untouched the rest of the way for a 44-yard touchdown to give the Aggies a 17-7 lead.
The Aggies took control of the game with defense. Louisiana Tech was limited to just eight offensive yards in the second quarter and ended the half with a paltry 66 yards gained.
"The one thing about this football team to me is how they are growing up," Andersen said of the defensive effort made by those coming off the bench. "If you look at the defensive side of the football, you take out Paul Igboeli, James Brindley and Kejon Murphy, those are three great players. Those are three of our best defensive players.
"The young men stepped up and found a way to make plays," Andersen said. "In the fourth quarter, they were able to get some things going. But we got out of the drive that we had to get them out of."
In the process, the Aggies earned their first WAC win for Andersen and hope they've turned the tide emotionally and physically on what still can be a respectable season.
"This was a good game," USU linebacker Bobby Wagner, who had an amazing one-handed interception in the second quarter, said. "Kind of a statement game for us to get the season going in the right direction."34 comments on this story
That direction now goes to Fresno State, where USU will certainly be interested in getting a little revenge after a last-second, 58-yard field goal lifted the Bulldogs to a comeback win in Romney Stadium a year ago.
NOTES: Saturday's attendance was 14,229. ... Robert Turbin, who had only seven carries last week, had 22 for 94 yards this week. ... The Aggies had only six team sacks prior to the game but had four against LTU. ... USU had zero turnovers for the first time this season.