Utah State's personal Santa Ana Stadium/Southern Cal jinx lasted one play less than three offensive series, and the 1,000-yard mark fell to Roger Grant early in the first quarter Saturday afternoon.
Yes, the Aggies' slim hope for the Big West Conference title also fell away on this day - San Jose State won big at Las Cruces, N.M. - but at least the Aggies got one major monkey off their backs. "It was something we had to deal with," said Coach Chuck Shelton, who'd never won in Santa Ana Stadium.Now he and the Aggies have a 45-17 victory to show for their efforts.
Beleaguered Cal-Fullerton scored a touchdown on its first drive, Utah State came back to tie 7-7 on its first drive, Grant running from the 16.
Fullerton, on a nine-game losing streak and behind redshirt freshman quarterback Terry Payne - who was a surprise starter because regular Paul Schulte was still having trouble from a kidney that was bruised last week - drove to the Aggie 1-yard line on the Titans' second possession of the game.
Fullerton got no further than the 1.
"If there was a turning point, I think that was it," said Shelton.
And what a turn it was. Utah State bolted from a 7-7 tie to as much as a 35-point lead for only the second Shelton win in Southern California in the five years he's been coach at Utah State.
"The best team took over and finally won it," said Shelton.
That brought the Aggies to a 4-4-1 record, 4-1-1 in the Big West - not good enough to catch San Jose State. It's the first time since 1985 Utah State has had a .500 record this late in the season.
It was the goal-line stand that got it all started after Utah State had tried to prevent the big play and given up a lot of short ones on Fullerton's first two drives.
The Aggie defense - namely Del Lyles - stopped Titan running backs Reggie Yarbrough and James Mullin for no gain on second-and-one and third-and-one from the 1, and Kevin Bouwman forced Mullin back on his fourth-and-one dive play, and the Aggies took over at their own 1 still tied 7-7.
(Lyles made another goal-line stand at the end of the third quarter, breaking up passes from the Aggie 4-yard line on second and third downs. Lyles finished with seven tackles, second on the team to Bouwman's eight.)
Three plays after the Aggies' big defensive series, on a sight-adjustment read by Ron Lopez and Rod Moore at the line of scrimmage, the two Aggie juniors hooked up for the second-longest touchdown pass in Utah State history - a 94-yard backbreaker. It was Moore's first TD catch of the season, and it was a further signal to Shelton that Lopez has matured as a quarterback the past month.
Split end Moore threw his first TD pass of the season on Utah State's very next drive as the Aggies pulled out another of their gadget plays. Fullback Jim Ray took the handoff from Lopez, handed to Moore on the reverse, and Moore threw a 43-yard scoring strike to Tracey Jenkins.
"It was not a trick play," insisted Shelton facetiously. The Aggies have twice thrown halfback passes for TDs this season, then added this one to take advantage of the defense's respect for Grant. "It was the first time I saw it today," Shelton admitted.
It was the sixth straight game in which Jenkins had caught a TD pass, and Moore was the fifth different player to throw him a scoring pass this season. The others were quarterbacks Lopez and Kirk Johnson plus halfbacks Grant and Floyd Foreman.
Jenkins added another TD catch later and now has 10 for the season, one short of the Utah State single-season record with two games to go.
Aggie sophomore placekicker Doug Beach also added muscle to his resume with six extra-point kicks - giving him 28-for-28 for the season - and two field goals, making him 11-for-13. He has scored 61 points this season. Jenkins has 60 points.
Grant, who scored two touchdowns for the second week in a row, easily surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 150 yards on 22 carries for the day, leaving him at 1,101 through nine games and in seventh place in the USU record book for a season with a shot at moving as high as third. He reached 1,000 with a 27-yard run on the first play of the Aggies' second possession.
"An amazing accomplishment in nine football games," said Shelton. Shelton was much-impressed with Grant's first TD run of the day in which he made a cutback move after the hole closed and sneaked outside. "He made such a good play," Shelton said. "He has the ability to make himself littler when he needs to." Grant is 5-foot-8 to start.
"Everything we did was going good," said Grant, who added that his season totals "conquered two of my goals." He wanted a 1,000-yard season first, then wanted 1,100 - meaning he'd average 100 yards a game for the 11-game schedule.
He arrived two games early and has a chance to catch all but the two best performances in Aggie history, the 1m534- and 1,454-yard seasons by Louie Giammona, who went on to an NFL career after leaving Utah State in 1975. "I'd never heard of him until I got to Utah State," Grant admitted in a radio interview.