It was an unbelievable team win. —USU head coach Matt Wells
LOGAN — Just as the sun was setting over the Wellsville Mountains — and possibly setting on Utah State's bowl chances — a low snap, a fumble and a recovered football in the end zone finally helped the Aggies get in front of Nevada early Saturday evening at Maverik Stadium.
After trailing 27-7 early in the third quarter, Utah State rallied behind a determined defense and former starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton to score 24 unanswered points on its way to a 31-27 victory over the Wolf Pack. Thanks to the comeback, the Aggies (4-3 in the Mountain West, 6-5 overall), who lost in their previous two attempts to win their sixth game, are now bowl eligible for the fifth straight season.
"It was an unbelievable team win," USU head coach Matt Wells said. "We're still trying to figure this team out in a lot of ways, but I'm going to tell you one thing they're not, and that's quitters. There's a tremendous amount of resiliency, and I can contribute that to a lot of the fifth-year seniors. They have too much investment, too much sweat and blood in this program just to give up."
Utah State trailed until there were just over seven minutes left in the game. Down 27-21, Nevada (4-3, 6-5) forced the Aggies to punt, but USU's Jentz Painter managed to snag Brock Warren's kick at the 1-yard line.
On the Pack's first play, junior quarterback Tyler Stewart was unable to corral a low snap from center, leaving the football loose in the end zone. After a wild scramble, the Aggies and their fans made like "YMCA" was being played over the loudspeakers, some of them signaling for a safety while others raised their hands to the sky in hopes of a touchdown.
Although Nevada running back James Butler initially seemed to have the ball, USU linebacker Kyler Fackrell came flying in to secure it for the Aggies and give the hosts six points instead of two.
"I was just trying to dive inside," Fackrell said. "I didn't see the low snap, but I saw that (Stewart) fumbled it and it was on the ground right there. So I just went and kind of hit him to get him off the ball."
The subsequent PAT by Jake Thompson was good, leaving USU up 28-27 with 6:55 to go. Although Nevada managed to get to midfield on its next drive, the Aggie defense held the Pack on fourth and 1 at their own 44.
Utah State then rode junior running back Devante Mays down into field goal range, and Thompson booted a 42-yarder to leave the hosts up 31-27 with only 35 seconds left.
Stewart ended throwing three incomplete passes on Nevada's last possession, and the Wolf Pack was unable to pull off a last-second, lateral free-for-all.
"Things haven't always gone our way this year, but they did today," Wells said. "The resiliency that they showed is motivating to me, and I just have a tremendous amount of respect for these guys. They continued to fight, and what a way to win it at the very end."
Keeton, a fifth-year senior who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, ended up in the unusual situation of replacing an injured Aggie quarterback rather than the other way around.
Sophomore Kent Myers, who took over at quarterback four games into the season when Keeton suffered a sprained MCL, played the first two series, but he didn't return after Nevada tipped up one of his passes and senior linebacker Jordan Dobrich took it back 25 yards for the Pack's first score of the game.
Wells said he didn't know if Myers was hurt on that play or before, but said Myers had suffered an injury to his left, non-throwing shoulder and would be re-evaluated on Monday.
In his place, Keeton ended up completing 14 of 27 passes for 109 yards and one interception, while also running for 52 yards on 14 carries.
"Chuckie Keeton made a lot of plays on third down today; that's one of the most important attributes you can have a quarterback — how you play on third down," Wells said. "He extended drives, made plays with his feet and played a heck of a game."
Led by Mays (22 carries for 133 yards and two touchdowns), the USU rushing game ended up being just as good as Nevada's, which got 139 yards and two touchdowns from James Butler and 79 yards on 22 carries from Don Jackson.
Nevada finished the game with 209 yards on 46 carries while the Aggies compiled 204 yards on 42 carries after totaling just 44 rushing in the first half.
Other than placekicker Brock Warren, who missed field goal attempts of 29 and 20 yards in the first quarter and a fumbled punt return by Andrew Rodriguez, USU's special teams play was excellent. In addition to long kickoff returns by Kennedy Williams, Hunter Sharp broke loose for a 96-yard TD in the second quarter — the first kickoff return for a touchdown by an Aggie since Kennedy's older brother, Kerwynn, broke loose against Nevada in 2010.
But things still looked bleak for the Aggies after the Wolf Pack needed just two plays to score in the second half on runs of 5 and 60 yards by Butler. Down 27-7, Utah State was facing fourth and less than a yard on its own 46-yard line when USU decided to line up Nick Vigil in the Wildcat formation, and the junior linebacker — who didn't have a carry this season until Saturday's game — responded by picking up seven tough yards.
With their drive still alive, the Aggies ended up scoring on a 5-yard run by Mays to close the gap to 27-14 with nine minutes left in the third quarter. And the hosts got even closer to Nevada — which had a PAT attempt blocked by David Moala in the third quarter — when a wild, 35-yard run by Mays set him up for a 2-yard score on the next play with 1:41 to go in the third quarter.