Analysis: Utah State-Fresno State position preview
Many people ruled out the Aggies after Chuckie Keeton went down for the season, but Utah State has overcome every adversity thrown the team's way and has advanced to the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State. True freshman Darell Garretson lost in his first action of the season against Boise State after being thrust into the line of duty, but he has led the Aggies to five straight victories since. However, the 23rd ranked Bulldogs are potentially the toughest test Utah State has faced yet. The Bulldogs rank first in the FBS in passing yardage and fourth in points scored, a tough test for the Utah State defense. Can Utah State cap an improbable season with a win over Fresno State? Or will the Bulldogs cement themselves as the class of the division by winning the championship? Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
When Keeton went down, the Aggies looked like a team that would be stuck in neutral the rest of the season. However, Garretson has come in and played well to keep the Aggies in the championship hunt. There have been the typical ups-and-downs, but he also has taken over games this season, tossing three touchdowns in both the Hawaii and Wyoming games along with a 298-yard performance against UNLV. Even if Keeton comes back at 100 percent next season, Aggie fans can feel comfortable that Garretson is ready to step up when he's needed.
Derek Carr not only has been the best quarterback in the Mountain West this season, but is in the discussion of the best quarterbacks in the nation. The senior tossed a ridiculous 45 touchdowns with only five interceptions this season, throwing multiple touchdowns in all 11 games this season. He threw for five touchdowns twice, six touchdowns once and seven touchdowns once while throwing for at least 400 yards in seven of 10 games. It's hard to bet against him in this game, even coming off a loss against San Jose State.
Edge: Fresno State
Joey DeMartino wrote his name in the Utah State history book last week after rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown against Wyoming. DeMartino became the 17th Utah State player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and the fourth in the last five years. Since Keeton was hurt, the senior has been incredibly consistent to take pressure off Garretson. After rushing for only 37 yards against Boise State, he's had at least 100 yards in four of the last five games and has scored a touchdown in every game to close out the Aggies' season.
Fresno State's running game gets lost in Carr's dominance, but junior Josh Quezada can't be overlooked. He rushed for 733 yards and six touchdowns this season, with two of his best performances coming in the two of the last three weeks of the season when he rushed for a combined 195 yards and two touchdowns against Wyoming and New Mexico. Marteze Waller is another option for the Bulldogs to spell Quezada. He has 608 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Edge: Utah State
Utah State will need a big performance from Travis Van Leeuwen to keep up with Fresno State's air attack, especially with Travis Reynolds out for the rest of the season. Van Leeuwen had a great game against UNLV with 112 yards receiving, but it's alarming that both of the Aggies' top receivers, before Reynolds was hurt, have combined for only two touchdowns stretching back to the Boise State game. Utah State will need a great performance out of Van Leeuwen and Brandon Swindall if the Aggies hope to win this one.
Sophomore Davante Adams has been electric for Fresno State all season and has been the beneficiary of Carr's dominance. He's turned in two ridiculous performances in a row the last two weeks, combining for 510 yards and seven touchdowns against New Mexico and San Jose State. He has 1,477 yards receiving and 22 touchdowns, along with scores in all but two games and six games with multiple touchdowns. Junior Josh Harper nearly has been as prolific, catching 13 touchdown passes and racking up 1,011 yards.
Edge: Fresno State
Utah State has hovered around the middle of the Mountain West in pass protection for most of the season. The Aggies rank seventh in the conference with 23 surrendered sacks and are about the same in opening holes for running backs, averaging 190 yards rushing per game, good for seventh in the Mountain West.
A big part of Carr's success this season has been the Bulldogs' ability to keep him upright. Fresno State only has surrendered eight sacks this season, good for first in the conference and 12 better than third-place Colorado State. Fresno State hasn't been as great in run blocking, averaging only 170 yards rushing per game, but the team's offense is based on the pass.
Edge: Fresno State
Defensive line and linebackers
This may be the great equalizer for Utah State against Carr. The Aggies rank first in the conference in total defense, giving up only 21 touchdowns all season, 12 more than the next closest team. Utah State has given up the lowest rushing and passing yards to opponents and averages only 321 yards surrendered per game. The Aggies also rank third with 29 sacks this season and will need Kyler Fackrell, Zach Vigil and Nick Vigil to win this game.
Fresno State is ahead of Utah State in sacks with 31, best in the Mountain West. However, the Bulldogs rank in the middle of the conference in total defense, surrendering about 437 yards per game and a total of 41 touchdowns. Sophomore linebacker Ejiro Ederaine is a player to watch for the Fresno State defense. He has 52 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks this season.
Edge: Utah State
This will be the key matchup in the game for Utah State: the Aggies' and their top-ranked in the conference pass defense versus the nation's passing leader. Utah State has picked off more passed (14) than surrendered touchdowns (13) and gives up only 210 yards passing per game. The pressure primarily will be on Nevin Lawson to lock down Adams and keep him in check. If he can do that and the Aggies can generate a few turnovers off Carr, Utah State will have a good chance in this game.
Fresno State's weakness has been on the back end of the defense all year, as evidenced by surrendering 547 yards passing and six touchdowns to San Jose State quarterback David Fales last week. Garretson isn't a world beater throwing the ball, but he'll get his chances against Fresno State's secondary, which is giving up 281 yards per game and has surrendered twice as many passing touchdowns (22) as generated interceptions (11).
Edge: Utah State
Prediction: This is a dream conference championship game, pitting the Mountain West's No. 1 offense against its No. 1 defense. Utah State should have every advantage defensively, but Carr is on another level and will get his yardage and multiple touchdowns. The key will be if Utah State can get to Carr early and force him into some mistakes. However, Fresno State has a 12-game winning streak at home, and I don't think Garretson will be able to keep up with Carr if this turns into a shootout. Fresno State's offensive firepower will be too much, and it will take this one 35-17.