Our defense played really well at times and the highlight was the back-to-back turnovers in the third quarter. But unfortunately, we couldn’t capitalize on offense. —Utah State head coach Matt Wells
FRESNO, Calif. — If Utah State had known before the game that it would hold Fresno State, the No. 2 offensive team in the nation, to just 24 points Saturday night — about half its season average — the Aggies would have probably been doing cartwheels, figuring that would be good enough to celebrate a Mountain West Conference championship.
The problem was, the same Fresno State team that allowed 62 points and more than 700 yards a week earlier against San Jose State never let the Aggies' offense get cranking in the inaugural MWC championship game. The result was a 24-17 Bulldog victory.
The Aggies only managed one offensive touchdown and a field goal, both in the fourth quarter, and came up just short in their bid for a second consecutive conference title to go along with last year’s Western Athletic Conference championship.
The Aggies, who fell to 8-5 on the season, now wait to see where their bowl destination is, a decision that should be announced by Sunday afternoon. Fresno State, which improved to 11-1, accepted a bid to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl following the game.
Minutes after backup quarterback Craig Harrison’s pass was intercepted by Dalen Jones to snuff the Aggies' last gasp, the celebration began at Bulldog Stadium. Queen’s “We are the Champions” blared over the loudspeakers and Fresno State fans flooded the field to revel in Fresno State’s first outright conference title since 1991.
Utah State coach Matt Wells praised his team several times in the postgame press conference for its “character” and “resiliency,” but was disappointed to come up short.
“Our defense played really well at times and the highlight was the back-to-back turnovers in the third quarter,’’ Wells said. “But unfortunately, we couldn’t capitalize on offense.’’
The Aggies only managed 304 yards of total offense and were hurt by eight sacks and some drops by receivers, as well as an ineffective run game that netted only 56 yards. But Wells gave credit to the Fresno State defense, which had ranked just 99th in the country in total defense coming into the game and had allowed 62 points and 736 yards in its last game, a loss at San Jose State.
FSU coach Tim DeRuyter was thrilled how well his defense stepped up after last week’s defensive debacle.
“These guys have heart,’’ DeRuyter said. “Our defense was maligned last week, but they were resilient and resolved to come back. They outplayed the best defense in the conference. Tonight we were the best defense in the conference.’’
After getting back into the game late in the second quarter with a long fumble return, the Aggies hung around in the second half and closed the gap to 24-14 with 11:55 left after Bruce Natson scored on a 10-yard run from a wildcat formation.
On the resulting kickoff, the Aggies recovered an onside kick at the FSU 38. Harrison, who replaced starter Darell Garretson after he went down hard with a helmet-to-helmet hit earlier in the quarter, led the Aggies to the 3-yard line before they settled for a 20-yard field goal with 9:00 left to cut the lead to 24-17.
(Wells later said that Garretson was "dinged up a little bit, but fine.")
The Bulldogs got the ball back and took more than five minutes off the clock, thanks in part to a third-down roughing the passer call against the Aggies when the Bulldogs were pinned deep in their own territory
Twice in the final four minutes, the Aggie defense stopped the Bulldogs in their own territory on fourth down and got the ball back for USU's offense. However after advancing into FSU territory at the 39-yard line with just more than a minute remaining, Jones’ interception of an overthrown ball ended the Aggies' hopes.
Utah State had kept it close in the early going, allowing just a 30-yard field goal by Colin McGuire in the first quarter.
Field position was the key, as the ball was in the Aggies' half most of the time, and the Bulldogs finally got in the end zone with 13:40 left in the first half on a 3-yard pass from Carr to Justin Johnson.
The Bulldogs added another TD later in the quarter as Carr hit Isaiah Burse with a 9-yard pass to make it 17-0.
The Aggies finally picked up some offensive yardage on a 42-yard pass from Garretson to Ronald Butler, but four plays later, Garretson’s pass was intercepted by Derron Smith at the 2.
Another long pass to Butler put the Aggies in field goal range, but Nick Diaz’ 42-yard attempt was wide left, leaving the Aggies scoreless.
It looked like the Bulldogs were about to take a 24-0 halftime lead with the ball at the USU 10-yard line and 17 seconds left. However, a pitch bounced off Marteze Waller and was picked up by USU’s Jake Doughty, who caught it on the run and rambled 86 yards for a touchdown.
Take away three long passes of 48, 43 and 38 yards, and the Aggies totaled just 23 yards on their other 30 first-half plays.
In the third quarter, the Aggies came out with more energy and intercepted Carr. But the offense still couldn’t move as its first two drives resulted in punts and the next was stopped on fourth down by the Bulldogs at the FSU 41.
Then came the fourth-quarter comeback that came up just short.
“We’ve got a bunch of fighters who continued to fight. That’s just who our kids are,’’ said Wells. “They fully expected to come in here and win tonight.’’