It doesn’t get much more exciting than that, or heart-stopping for my health. This is a prime example of how far this program has come because honestly we did not play our best. We played well in spurts … but to me that’s the ultimate team victory when you don’t play your best, but find a way to win. —Utah State head coach Matt Wells
LAS VEGAS — It's been called the wildcat, head coach Matt Wells refered to it as the sunshine package and JoJo Natson called it the mini-plays, but whatever the name, the result of having slot receiver JoJo Natson take direct snaps made the difference for Utah State on Saturday night.
It wasn’t the prettiest of efforts, but the Aggies clawed and held on to a 28-24 on the strength of a Natson touchdown run with 3:50 left on the clock to claim victory over UNLV in Sin City. The win clinched bowl eligibility for the team for the third consecutive year. USU has never played in three consecutive bowl games in school history.
“It doesn’t get much more exciting than that, or heart-stopping for my health,” Wells said after the game. “This is a prime example of how far this program has come because honestly we did not play our best. We played well in spurts but to me that’s the ultimate team victory when you don’t play your best, but find a way to win.”
The Aggies struggled all night to run the ball but found a spark in having Natson in as the quarterback. On the final drive, Natson carried the ball three times for 22 yards and the deciding touchdown. Natson finished the game with 71 rushing yards and two touchdowns to lead the Aggies to victory.
“They call it the mini-plays since I’m the smallest guy on the offense,” Natson said after the game. “We put it in this week, and I just made the best of it. I’m just happy to help my team win.”
A week after setting the freshman record for passing yards, Darrell Garretson had a very freshman-like performance. At times the quarterback looked great, hitting Travis Van Leeuwen and Travis Reynolds often as both receivers eclipsed the 100-yard mark. At other times he looked like a player overwhelmed. With time running out in the first half and no timeouts, Garretson attempted a quarterback sneak from the goal line that was stuffed and put the Aggies into the locker room behind 17-14.
While the Aggie offense had its struggles, the defense wasn’t exactly perfect either. Rebel running back Tim Cornett joined Boise State’s Jay Ajayi as the only backs to run for at least 100 yards against the Aggies. Cornett battled injuries all night but still finished with 115 yards.
When the defense needed a play, however, it found it, and more often than not it was cornerback Nevin Lawson who came to the rescue. UNLV started the second half with a strong drive and threatened to score to put the Aggies down 10, but Lawson picked off Rebel quarterback Caleb Herring in the end zone to stop the threat. Following the Natson score it was again Lawson who was consistently in the right place. On the final drive, UNLV got to the Utah State 16-yard line with 35 seconds to go, but would get no closer as the Aggie defense held on strong for the victory.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s all about how you finish,” Lawson said.
Utah State will take a bye next weekend before finishing up the season with home games against Colorado State and Wyoming.
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.