A nightmare of a first quarter may have slipped Utah State out of the Big West football race Saturday night as the Aggies outscored league-leading San Jose State 17-7 in the second half but couldn't overcome a 17-0 deficit in the first half and fell 34-27 at Spartan Stadium.
"You might say a force was against us," said Aggie running back Roger Grant, who hustled for 57 hard-won yards and a touchdown."We've still got a chance (for the conference title)," said quarterback Ron Lopez, "and we're going to play like champions.
"We'll be back," he vowed.
The Aggies' first loss in conference play gave them a 1-1-1 record. San Jose moved to 4-0, and Fresno started the day at 2-0-1.
"We played San Jose great and should have beaten them, and we played Fresno great (a 24-24 tie in Fresno last week) and should have beaten them," said Lopez.
"We're no slouches in this conference," he declared.
Said Coach Chuck Shelton, "We came up short on the score, but we didn't come up short in character.
"But you've still got to win. That's what this business is all about."
"We found the way," said former Aggie assistant and now San Jose first-year head coach Terry Shea. "I've got to give them credit. They played well against Fresno State and came back against us."
The Aggies came within a fourth-quarter interception in the Spartan end zone of either tying - for the second straight week - or perhaps going for the win with a two-point conversion.
The Aggies tried a motion ploy hoping to get man-for-man coverage on Tracey Jenkins on a fade to the right corner of the end zone, a play the Ags had scored on at 14:28 of the fourth quarter to cut San Jose's lead to 27-20, and a play they'd scored on last week in Fresno.
"We went to it one too many times," said Lopez.
The Aggies' other second-half scores were Doug Beach's second field goal of the game in the third period and a Lopez 1-yard plunge with 11:11 left in the game. It turned out to be the last score of the game.
In his own end zone, Spartan safety Hesh Colar, one of three San Jose players in the area, came down with the ball and the Aggies' hopes, although they did get possession again with 1:47 left deep in their own zone.
Shades of Fresno here, except USU was seven behind this time, not tied and protecting what they already had.
"We ran out of rope," Lopez said.
The Aggie junior QB, in his fourth start, threw for 348 yards and one touchdown, more than 200 yards in the second half.
Lopez's receivers got a workout. Rod Moore caught 10 passes for 149 yards, Jenkins seven for 109, Ryan Duve five for 45, Dexter Pointer four for 38 and Jim Ray two for seven.
Because San Jose's man-for-man defense was so active, most patterns involved the Aggies either sprinting as far as they could to make fingertip catches, many on dives, over the coverage, or coming back to dive for balls thrown at the ground.
"I ain't never been this bruised," said Moore, "but that's the fun part of being a receiver - you get to dive and stretch."
The game began like last week's thriller in Fresno, with the home team marching quickly but the Aggie defense stiffening near the goal and holding the Spartans to a field goal.
End of similarity.
The Aggies knew full well they couldn't make mistakes against San Jose, but they couldn't help it, making a big one right off and adding a lost fumble in the second quarter. They lost another to stop their first drive of the second half, a drive that had gotten them to the Spartan 35.
Shelton, Lopez, Moore and Grant all gave the same reason: tightness.
Last week, they were hyped but relaxed at the same time. This week, they knew it was a tougher assignment and were just tight to start.
"I thought we kind of self-destructed in the first half, we made too many mistakes, the kind you can't make," Shelton said.
Instead of Utah State coming right back with a long drive of its own and a go-ahead touchdown after holding the Spartans to the field goal, like they did last week in Fresno, the Aggies blew their first possession when San Jose's Eddie Thomas fell on a live ball on its kickoff following the field goal, giving the Spartans possession on the Aggie 22-yard line.
The Aggies held defensively to fourth-and-7, but a doubly deflected pass fell into Bobby Blackmon's hands in the right corner of the end zone for a 10-0 San Jose lead. Utah State's Jermaine Younger tipped the ball, and so did Bryce Burnett of San Jose.
That set off a string of four straight fourth-down conversions for San Jose in the first half - three of them for points. "Killed us," said Shelton.
Their second touchdown, making it 17-0 near the end of the first quarter, also came on a fourth-down play that also involved a Spartan miscue that turned into a score. On fourth-and-8, QB Ralph Martini fumbled the snap, but all that did was give him enough time for Walter Brooks Jr. to get wide open in the left corner of the end zone.
The Aggies came back with a Grant 1-yard TD - he was stopped by Charles Burnham and Anthony Washington at the line but bounced wide left for the score. That cut the lead to 17-7, but a 14-play Spartan drive put them back in the end zone after they converted a fourth-and-1 and the Utah State 4. Canley scored from the 2 after Younger lost hold of his jersey behind the line.
The Aggies lost a fumble on their next drive, and the Spartans made it 27-7 with a field goal on fourth-and-7 from the 7.
Utah State also scored a field goal, one fourth-and-3 from the 17, to end the half 27-10 for the Spartans.