Utah State falls short in Mountain West title game

In a season defined by overcoming long odds, Utah State came up

just short in the conference championship game.

Third-string quarterback Craig Harrison threw an interception

deep in Fresno State territory in the final minute and the Aggies

lost the inaugural Mountain West title game 24-17 to the

24th-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday night.

”It’s a tremendous group of young men,” Utah State coach Matt

Wells said. ”The thing that I’m proud of is they continue to move

this program little by little, step by step. They earned the right

to be in this game.”

Few expected the Aggies (8-5) to make it this far after they

started the season 3-4 and lost star quarterback Chuckie Keaton and

four other offensive starters to season-ending injuries.

But with a dominating defense that held Derek Carr and the

high-powered Fresno State offense in check, Utah State won the

Mountain Division by winning the final five regular-season games

and nearly overcame a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit in the

championship game.

”We’ve just got a lot of fighters, kids who continue to play,”

Wells said. ”There’s never any quit. We don’t have to say don’t

quit, keep fighting. They do it anyway.”

Even after losing another quarterback to an injury when Darell

Garretson was knocked out on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Dalen Jones

early in the fourth quarter.

Receiver Bruce Natson took a direct snap and ran 10 yards for

Utah State’s first offensive score. The Aggies then recovered the

ensuing onside kick, leading to a field goal by Nick Diaz that made

it 24-17 with 9 minutes to play.

But the Aggies couldn’t get another score. Ejiro Ederaine sacked

Harrison on fourth-and-7 from the Utah State 41 with 2:47 to play,

and Jones intercepted a pass from Harrison at the Bulldogs 17 with

58 seconds left.

”That’s the way we know how to play, getting sacks, getting

turnovers, playing physical,” Bulldogs safety Derron Smith

said.

That’s not how the Bulldogs (11-1) played last week when they

lost 62-52 to San Jose State, dashing any hopes of a BCS bid. But

the defense responded Saturday with one of its best performances of

the season. Fresno State had eight sacks, knocked out Garretson and

stopped three fourth-down tries.

With Carr providing enough offense by throwing for 404 yards and

three touchdowns, the Bulldogs earned their first outright

conference title since winning the Big West in 1989.

”This is a big reason why I came back,” Carr said. ”I wanted

to win an outright championship. Sharing a title was great. As a

competitor that wasn’t enough. We wanted to come back and finish

this thing right.”

The defensive performance came a week too late to get Fresno

State into the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, the Bulldogs are headed to the

Las Vegas Bowl, where they could take on Southern California.

The Aggies appear headed to the Poinsettia Bowl.

Carr broke older brother David’s single-season school record for

touchdown passes (46) and yards passing (4,839) in his final game

at Bulldog Stadium. With two more TD passes in the bowl game, Carr

will be the fifth quarterback in FBS history to reach 50 in a

season. He also needs 125 yards to reach 5,000 on the season.

The Aggies came into the game as the top defense in the

conference and played that way, forcing a pair of fumbles in the

first half and intercepting Carr twice in the third quarter. The

defense even provided the first score for Utah State on Jake

Doughty’s 86-yard fumble return in the closing seconds of the

half.

”That’s the toughest defense I’ve ever faced,” Carr said.

But the Aggies’ injury-depleted offense injuries couldn’t take

advantage.

”When things aren’t really going our way, we’re not a team that

points fingers at each other,” said safety Matt Suite, who had two

interceptions. ”We say, `Let’s go, I have your back.”’

The Aggies went three-and-out after Carr’s first interception

and then were stopped on fourth-and-1 following the second when

Joey DeMartino was stuffed for no gain.

Carr then drove the Bulldogs down the field, converting a

fourth-and-10 with a 20-yard pass to Isaiah Burse before finding

Davante Adams for a 3-yard TD pass to make it 24-7. That was Adams’

23rd TD catch of the season.

After a surprisingly sluggish start on offense with just one

field goal in the first quarter, Fresno State seemed to take

control in the second. Carr threw TD passes to Marcel Jensen and

Burse, and the defense harassed Garretson with four sacks to build

a 17-0 lead.

After Diaz missed a 42-yard field goal for Utah State in the

final minute of the half, Carr drove the Bulldogs down to the 11

and in position for another score. But Marteze Waller couldn’t

handle a pitch from Carr and Doughty returned it for a score that

cut Fresno State’s lead to 17-7 at halftime.