Utah State left the door ajar with 1:22 left Saturday afternoon in Romney Stadium. Del Lyles slammed it shut.
Lyles, the Aggies' junior interior linebacker, had reinjured a hairline fracture in an ankle, had probably broken a thumb and had probably broken a finger, all at different times in the game, but when the nation's No. 3 passing offense got the ball back on a missed field goal with 1:22 left, down by six points, Lyles stepped to the fore."He turned up the heat," said Aggie Coach Chuck Shelton, who considered this 51-45 Utah State win over University of the Pacific "the biggest in our (five-year) program.
"That doesn't mean I'm satisfied," added Shelton, whose defense - and offense - hadn't been all that effective most of the game.
But when it was on the line - with Pacific and Troy Kopp taking over the ball at their 24-yard line - Lyles broke through and caused a Kopp fumble that was fallen on by Tiger center Curt Crandall for no gain. Lyles pressured Kopp into an incompletion on second down. Atu Fihaki broke up a Kopp third-down pass, and Lyles was in Kopp's face again as Kopp completed a wild 24-yard pass to keep the drive going.
Jermaine Younger helped Lyles on the next play, Mark Johnson got credit on a second-down incompletion, and Lyles did it all himself on third-and-20 and fourth-and-20, forcing Kopp to throw a prayer on the last play for Fihaki to intercept and give Utah State the game.
"I thought we were going to score," said Kopp. "I was poised, even on fourth-and-20."
"Those last four plays," said Shelton, talking about Lyles' pressure, "were the best we've ever had. He was phenomenal."
The Aggies hadn't been running that blitz with Lyles. "At that point in time, I just told the coach I felt I could get in there and put pressure on," Lyles said. Once he made the first play to force the fumble, he got the green light to blitz. "It was all determination," said Lyles. "They knew I was coming, but I felt like no one could get me."
Lyles went up to Kopp after the game to congratulate him and tell him he's a good quarterback. "He didn't want to talk to me, but I was determined to talk to him - we met a lot," said Lyles, all smiles.
The Aggies had not practiced well all week, said Shelton, and he had feared they'd go into the game and play the same way. They did, he said.
But individual players picked the club up at different times, starting with receivers Tracey Jenkins and Rod Moore, who made several catches each in which they had to stop, come back toward the ball and leap over and outreach a defender.
"That brings everyone up when they make big catches like that, jumping over people," said center Warren Bowers, who himself made a pick-me-up play when he recovered a Roger Grant fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and 41-24 lead at 8:03 of the third quarter. "I was moving downfield and fell on it," Bowers said. He'd been teased by line coach Gene McKeehan that he'd missed his block to make Grant fumble.
Said Jenkins, who broke the Utah State record for TD receptions in a season, "Ron (Lopez) just puts the ball in the place he thinks you have the best chance to catch it." The passes looked short, but Jenkins said, "Not when the coverage is that tight - that's a good pass."
Jenkins had three TD catches Saturday, giving him 13 for the season, breaking the record by two. He has caught TD passes in seven straight games. Jenkins had 11 receptions for 189 yards, and Moore had seven for 95 yards and a touchdown. Lopez ended 22-for-35 with four touchdowns through the air and 328 yards to his credit.
"I'm happy; it's something I'll be proud of," said Jenkins of his record, "but team glory for me is No. 1 priority."
Grant was the Aggies' other big gun, having the second-best day of his career with 215 yards rushing and one touchdown. (He'd have had two, but for the fumble.) Like Lyles, Grant, who'd rushed steadily throughout the day, took charge late in the game with Pacific nipping at the Aggies' heels, thanks to a stadium-record-tying six touchdown passes by Kopp, who set a stadium record for passing yards with 515. It was the third time this season Kopp's passed for more than 500 yards, and he has a 3,311 total now.
When the Aggies needed a long-possession drive to keep the Tiger offense off the field, Grant provided it. He carried on seven of 10 plays for 41 yards and turned one play that should have gone for a 3-yard loss into a 13-yard gain, twisting away before defenders could lay a hand on him.
"He gets in a crowd, and that's where he's at his best," said Tiger senior linebacker Pat Aragon, a Big West honorable mention selection himself last year.
"That's what the good ones are supposed to do," said Grant, who has an idea he is pretty good since he's moved into third place in Aggie history for single-season rushing. He has 1,316 yards with one game left - at BYU.
There wasn't much said in the huddle on the long Aggie drive that ended in Beach's first miss after 10 straight made field goals. (He's 34-for-34 on extra points.) Just hold onto the ball, stay in bounds, said Grant. He credited his line for making the plays easy. "There was only one (run) where I had to do anything on my own," he said, talking about the 13-yarder on second-and-7.
"It was all adrenaline," he said, adding he likes running late in the game. "I'm so tired I don't have time to think; I just run the ball," Grant said.
"He runs harder than anybody I've faced," said Aragon. "He's got a heart the size of the stadium."
So did the Tigers.
"They kept the heat on us all day," said Shelton, noting the Aggies were ahead by 17 points three different times, "and they came back. We never really had the opportunity to put the game away. I never, ever dreamed anybody would score that many points on our defense. They earned them."
Beach scored first on a field goal, but Pacific scored a touchdown and field goal for a 10-6 lead (another Beach field goal) before the Aggies took a lead they'd never quite give up at 13-10 on a Lopez to Jenkins hookup with late in the first quarter.