After the season Utah State has had, a tie with the most decorated team in the Big West Conference, a team going for a league-record 18th-straight win, was a victory of sorts.
Aggie Coach Chuck Shelton chose to run out the clock Saturday night with the ball deep in his own territory, content with a 24-24 knot against the two-time defending champion, leaving his team still in contention for the Big West title with a 1-0-1 league record as it prepares to meet the other contender, San Jose State, next week.At the same time, it robbed the Aggies of what might have been their biggest victory of the Shelton Era, but their last drive started on their own 18-yard line, and getting greedy could have cost them dearly.
It was the first tie in Aggie football since 1981, 13-13 against Texas Christian.
"We didn't have any choice," said Shelton. "It's not a delightful thing, but a less delightful thing would be to get beat the way our kids played today."
The conference race was of paramount importance, he said.
Two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Rob VanDePol gave the Aggies the wherewithall after slugging it out all night with Fresno.
The first, with 7:05 left in the fourth quarter and Fresno up 24-21, was intercepted by Steve Neeleman on his knees at the Bulldog 36.
Doug Beach's 20-yard field goal - he'd missed one earlier but was 3 for 3 on PATs - with 2:26 left was the final score because the Aggie defense stiffened against savvy Bulldog quarterback Mark Barsotti.
Barsotti had 2:20 left and mushed his team quickly to the Aggie 42 with 1:46 left. On third down, Barsotti tried a second pass in VanDePol's direction, and VanDePol swatted that down to force a Fresno punt.
The punt and a penalty put the Aggies on their 18 with 1:27 left, and Shelton opted for three rushes by Roger Grant rather than risking a pass and interception.
Grant's rushes gave him a total of 197 yards on 34 carries against what was the No. 2 team in the nation in rushing defense two weeks ago. Backfield mate Floyd Foreman added 87 yards on nine carries. As a team, the Aggies rushed for 272 yards to Fresno's 279.
It was an even bigger night for linebacker Kevin Bouwman.
Bouwman became the Aggies' all-time leading career tackler on the first play of the fourth quarter when he helped haul down Fresno all-America Aaron Craver for a 3-yard gain. That gave Bouwman 334 tackles at Utah State, one more than current Houston Oiler Al Smith accumulated in Dairyland. Bouwman finished the game with 13 tackles for a career total of 337.
Del Lyles came out of a season-long shell to look again like the All-Big West candidate he was supposed to be with 14 tackles.
Aggie quarterback Ron Lopez, in his third start, took command, directing his teammates and patting them on the back and throwing 12 for 19 for 160 while guiding the Aggies to 432 yards total offense against 405 for Fresno. Barsotti was 13 for 25 with an intercpeiton for 126 yards.
All season Shelton's been saying this is his best team. A 1-3 record and 129-43 deficit in scoring kept calling him a liar. Little offense, disappointing defense.
Shelton stuck to his guns, even though they kept shooting him in the foot, as he often acknowledged.
Finally it came together as two teams that lost by a total of 125-25 last week tried to suck it up.
After watching last week's game films of Northern Illinois' 73-18 win over Fresno, the Aggie coaching staff determined the way to the Bulldogs' heart was to get them down early. They devised a game plan with five pass rushers instead of four to try and hurry Barsotti, and they kept offering Grant as testimony to their ground game on offense.
Lo and behold, it worked.
At least to some extent.
Barsotti moved Fresno smartly on its first possession of the game - helped immensely by a late hit out of bounds by Del Lyles - but he had to settle for a field goal.
The Aggies, on their first possession, mixed Grant's running with some play calling that twice took advantage of Fresno blitzes for long gains in the air. Lopez converted a third-and-8 with an 11-yard pass to Tracey Jenkins, then hit Jenkins on a third-and-4 for 10 yards during a blitz. On another blita, on second-and-5, Lopez threw 25 yards to Rod Moore.
Grant and a penalty flag carried the Aggies into the end zone and that all-important early lead, 7-3.
From there through most of the first half, it was a real football game, the kind the Aggies haven't seen this year, with the exception of perhaps the first half against Utah, when they remained within a touchdown.
Things grew a little grim at times as the Aggies lost two fumbles, their 15th and 16th turnovers of the season, but all in all, they handled it.
Lopez lost a fumble at the Fresno 41, and the Bulldogs capitalized on that mistake with a toucdown on second-and-15 with a big reverse good for 28 yards by flanker Kelvin Means. That put Fresno ahead 10-7, which is where the score stayed for the half.
Grant then fumbled at the end of a 38-yard gainer that took him to the Bulldog 13-yard line. He was sandwiched by two Bulldogs with Mark Adams causing the fumble and Jeff Thiesen recovering for a touchdown in the Bulldog end zone.
But - and get this - no real harm came from it. Fresno missed a 47-yard field goal, and the Aggies kept the ball until there were 10 seconds left in the half. They didn't score, but the Bulldogs didn't add to the lead, either, and that was a victory in itself, the way things have been going for the Ags.
They opened the third period slugging away with the champs, the lead see-sawing throughout the second half. Grant scored to make it Utah State 14-10, but Barsotti ran a bootleg from the 28 for a Fresno 17-14 lead. Lopez came back with a 14-yard pass to Tracey Jenkins fading into the right corner for 21-17, the third-quarter final, but Craver dived from the 1 at 10:59 of the fourth for the 24-21 Fresno lead.