A loss would have been "devastating," says Utah State Coach Chuck Shelton, who says he and his staff took into account the Big West Conference standings as well as the time left on the clock and a guess as to what Fresno State would do defensively before making the decision to stay on the ground Saturday night.
Tied 24-24 with the two-time defending Big West champion Bulldogs in Fresno Saturday night, the Aggies forced a final Bulldog punt and got the ball on their 18-yard line with 1:27 left.The plan was not to settle for a tie, though that's what happened, leaving Utah State 1-0-1 and Fresno 2-0-1 in league play with San Jose State, the Aggies' next opponent, at 2-0.
"It keeps us in the race for the bowl game, and that's what we're trying to play the season for," says Shelton. "We made the right decision.
"The kids, in my opinion, outplayed Fresno, and when you do that, you like to come away with a victory. It just didn't happen the way we'd like.
"At this point, it was very important to not get beat," Shelton said.
Shelton says Utah State had moved the ball well on the ground all game - 272 yards rushing would tend to support his contention - and the Aggie coaches figured Fresno would drop into pass coverage in the critical final minute and a half. The Aggies hoped they might break a gainer on the ground, get out to the 40 or so and then go for the win.
Another reason to not pass, noted offnsive coordinator Pat Behrns, was that an incomplete pass would stop the clock and could have helped Fresno get the ball back. An interception also was possible.
Unfortunately for Utah State, it was called for holding on first down, stopping the clock and giving the Ags first-and-19 from their own 9. Roger Grant carried twice for 11 yards, and Fresno used its only remaining timeout, and Grant lost a yard on the game's final play, leaving him with 197 yards for the game.
That was the mild ending to an exceptional game that saw the lead change hands six times, with neither team ever leading by more than four. "I imagine it was a pretty good game to watch," said Shelton, still disappointed that he had to be involved in the first tie of his college coaching career and second of his football life.
Fresno Coach Jim Sweeney, whose team had won 20 straight at home and was going for a Big West-record 18th-straight league win, had kind words for the Aggies, noting their losses to Missouri and Oregon. "They showed they are a better team than they have been. They had a resolve that they could win. I admire that," Sweeney said.
The Aggies went into the game thinking they could run on Fresno, No. 2 nationally against the rush two weeks ago. Behrns said Fresno's habit of dropping cornerbacks into man coverage was the reason Grant and Floyd Foreman could go wide.
Shelton added the offensive line "was dominant over their defensive line."
Sweeney agreed. "Utah State hammered us, held us off, and Grant hit the holes fast or hung behind his blockers, making it hard for us to find him, and we lost contain on him.
The first two drives of the game set the tone. Fresno moved well but settled for a field goal, while the Aggies drove 76 yards on 11 plays toward a Ron Lopez 1-yard keeper. On that Aggie drive, three times they made the proper call on passes as Fresno blitzed, making gains of 11, 10 and 25 yards.
"No question our offense made great strides," said Behrns. "We handled their blitz better than we've ever handled it and forced them into different coverage."
"We took them out of what they wanted to do," Shelton said.
Defensively, senior Kevin Bouwman and junior Del Lyles, both linebackers, were the emotional leaders, making 13 and 14 tackles. "Lyles maybe played one of his better games," said Shelton. "He personally took away a lot of their underneath passing. Even though they would make the reception, Del would react so quickly."
Fresno rushed for 285 yards but was held to 126 passing.