Fresno, Calif. • The Utah State players trudged toward the tunnel, avoiding red- and white-clad fans speeding toward the field around them.
They clenched their jaws and fists. They hadn't done enough.
Utah State's championship dream had collapsed on that field. And try as the Aggies might to revive it interceptions, onside kicks, improvised formations Fresno State just had an answer, dealing them a 24-17 loss at Bulldog Stadium.
Though Utah State looked completely out of a few rounds, they came back just enough to make a heartbreaker. A final drive faltered in the final minute with a game-clinching interception by the Bulldogs.
"The kids in our locker room it's quiet," USU coach Matt Wells said. "They came here fully expecting to win."
Utah State had battled back from injuries and bitter defeat during the regular season. On Saturday night, the Aggies had to face down a defense that ravaged their quarterbacks and an offense that was as explosive as any they had seen.
Fresno State tore chunks out of them. Senior quarterback Derek Carr threw for 404 yards and three touchdowns on his way to beating his brother's school single-season records. Isaiah Burse darted with screen passes, while Davante Adams made eye-popping catches.
The Aggies made it a battle worthy of the hype between the conference's best defense and best offense. Utah State held the Bulldogs to a season-low in scoring while sacking Carr three times and picking him off twice. Linebacker Jake Doughty got six points back seconds before the end of the first half by running a recovered fumble 86 yards for his first career touchdown.
But even the defense's other best efforts couldn't kick Utah State's rusty attack into life. It took 48 minutes before the offense scored its first points on a Jojo Natson run.
Quarterback Darell Garretson was ineffective and sacked six times before leaving the game with a helmet-to-helmet caused injury. Craig Harrison led a field goal drive in relief, but he couldn't manufacture points out of two last-ditch possessions in the fourth quarter. The running game managed only 51 yards when Fresno State's eight sacks were factored in.
"You can't pinpoint on a couple drops on the perimeter," Wells said. "You can't pinpoint it on the O-line with pressure. Credit to [Fresno State], credit to their defense. I thought they did some different things just to create some of that pressure."
The Aggies nearly engineered a comeback after Natson's touchdown. Nick Vigil recovered a Josh Thompson onside kick, and the Aggies drove as far as the Fresno State 3-yard line. But they were forced to settle for a field goal.
Utah State got two possessions afterward in the final three-and-half minutes, but they ended on downs and the final pick.
It was a defense-dominated first quarter. Fresno could muster three points, but that quickly gave way as the Bulldogs found a rhythm in their home stadium. Carr led back-to-back touchdown drives of 45 yards and 66 yards to put his team up 17-0.
The Aggies were all but toasted in the first half, on the ropes with mere seconds to go and Fresno State knocking on the end zone. Doughty's fumble return gave Utah State a bit of hope.
It quickly was snuffed by third-quarter struggles. The Aggies' offense got a gift with back-to-back picks by junior safety Brian Suite but never got close to the red zone after either. It was only after Carr led his final scoring drive of the day ending with a 3-yard toss to Adams ÂÂ that Utah State mustered a response.
Burse finished with 17 catches for 132 yards, while Adams had 168 yards on nine catches. Carr earned offensive player of the game honors, while Derron Smith was the top defender with a sack and an interception.