Utah State football: Aggies scratch out ugly win at UNLV
Las Vegas • In a highlight reel of "The Best of Utah State," this game won't belong.
It wasn't the Aggies' best.
It was ugly.
It was mistake-filled.
It featured penalty flags and fumbles too many of each for Utah State's liking.
USU coach Matt Wells acknowledged these after defeating UNLV 28-24 Saturday on the road. But then there's this: Utah State still won, despite its flaws.
You'd have to dig back a ways to find the last time the Aggies did that, he said.
"To me, that's the ultimate team victory because when you don't play your best, you find ways to win," Wells said. "You find a way to make enough plays to win on both sides. For that, I'm proud of these kids."
Even winning ugly at Sam Boyd Stadium, Utah State still stays near the top of the pile in the Mountain West, and it still gets to enjoy a third straight season of bowl eligibility.
The Rebels were 16 yards away from wiping away all of the Aggies' gains, however, and made them sweat out a final minute as tense as any the team has faced. UNLV got four shots from the 16 into Utah State's end zone.
But they couldn't complete any of them. The final fourth down pass that zipped harmlessly against the turf allowed the Aggies to collectively exhale.
"It doesn't matter how you start, it's just about how you finish," said cornerback Nevin Lawson, who had several key breakups on the last drive.
And an offense that had its booms and busts finished well also, cobbling together an 82-yard, 11-play scoring drive that would prove to be the difference. The ace up Utah State's sleeve was putting 5-foot-7 Jojo Natson in as a wildcat quarterback and allowing him to bounce between blockers.
He would score twice running the ball, but the final one with 3:45 left in the game was most memorable: A zig-zagging 12-yard dash and dive into the end zone.
"Coach was telling me the hole was going to be there," Natson said. "I just needed to beat one man. That final one, I beat that one defender."
Besides that final, heart-pounding stretch, the rest of the game will bring wincing in the film room this week.
The Aggies came out flat, turning the ball over on their opening drive and allowing a touchdown by the Rebels in the first seven minutes. It set the tone for a slugfest in which Utah State had been pumped up as a double-digit favorite.
Nothing came easy for the Aggies, whose offense struggled to get going against one of the nation's worst run defenses. Halfway through the game, Utah State had run for only 52 yards.
Freshman Darell Garretson was a spark, throwing for 288 yards and dashing for several third downs against the Rebels' swarming pass rush. He was helped by a pair of 100-yard games from receivers Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen, but he also fumbled several snaps and got sacked four times.
Defensively, the Aggies stood tall often on third down, but also was gashed by quarterback Caleb Herring. The senior took several runs long, and also found receivers Marcus Sullivan and Devante Davis for huge gains. For a change of pace, the Rebels simply handed off to grinding rusher Tim Cornett, who had 115 yards and a score.
Utah State's defense had its best moments in the second half, when it stopped UNLV's opening drive with an end-zone interception by Lawson. The Rebels struggled to crack them until the fourth quarter, when Aggies' penalties helped extend a 7-minute, 79-yard drive resulting in a Herring touchdown pass.
R The Aggies hold on to beat UNLV, which fails to score on four tries in the red zone in the final minute.
• Jojo Natson finishes with 71 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.