Monson: Utah State fights and falls proudly in MWC title game
Whoever said defense wins championships never quite grasped all the far reaches of every football situation, certainly not the specific dynamics of the 2013 Mountain West title game.
Amid the variables in a match like this, Utah State had a double-barreled undertaking here slowing down the Bulldog offense was just a part of it. The other part was ... keeping up. Flail, fight, push, shove, chuck it all over the yard, do whatever had to be done to keep up offensively. It was unlikely that a limited USU O could accomplish such a feat. In fact, there was no freaking way. Hold it there ... almost ... was ... a ... way.
One conclusion drawn late Saturday night: The Aggies are a tough bunch. They hang tough, even in difficult circumstances. More on that in a minute.
Combined with a stiff effort from their defense, a balanced effort was the Ags' only hope a hope that diminished into a wish for a while, then transformed into a glorious opportunity that fell short. The thing finished a 24-17 affair, with Utah State on the sorry end.
Talk about a mismatch for the ages: Derek Carr vs. Darell Garretson? In a sport that has highlighted a plain fact a thousand times over in the past decade that the quarterback is the biggest key to victory Fresno had a bloated advantage, an edge as lopsided as a Kate Upton cartwheel. That's not as much a knock on the freshman as it is a nod to the senior.
You can look at it numerically: Carr completed 36 of 53 passes for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Garretson hit 12 of 26 for 198 and no scores and was knocked out of the game on a big hit early in the fourth quarter. Or you can look at the overall effects, most of which leaned toward the Dogs despite the obvious truth that USU faced a considerably softer test against a lesser defense.
It had long since been taken for granted that the Aggies would lean, as per the norm, on that defense. It had ranked first in the Mountain West during the regular season. FSU, on the other hand, just sort of got by with barely tolerating its D, a defense that had been less the Steel Curtain and more the Marshmallow Curtain.
Even with that disparity, Utah State had a steeper ascent when in possession.
It made a noble push early in the fourth quarter, when backup QB Craig Harrison took over but, ultimately, came up short. A Bruce Natson touchdown run at the 11:55 mark cut a 17-point Fresno lead to 24-14. USU recovered an onside kick and sliced the lead further with a subsequent Nick Diaz field goal. But Utah State tried to convert a fourth down and failed at its own 38-yard line at the 2:47 mark. After that, on a final desperate drive in the last seconds, the Aggies' hopes ended with a Fresno interception.
"We couldn't capitalize on offense," Aggies coach Matt Wells said.
FSU started the scoring midway through the first quarter on a 30-yard field goal, punctuating a long drive that stalled at the Utah State 13-yard line. It added to that margin at the 13:40 mark of the second quarter on a seven-play, 45-yard TD drive. A third drive a 14-play, 66-yard beauty that saw the Bulldogs convert on a couple of fourth downs pushed the margin to 17-0 with 7:17 left in the half.
From there, it took a quirky fumble recovery/return that covered 86 yards by linebacker Jake Doughty to get the Aggies on the board, making it 17-7. USU never did put enough go in its O. One of the best chances the Aggies had to get a first-half offensive touchdown died with 4:26 remaining at the Fresno State 2-yard line, where Garretson was intercepted. An attempted field goal missed in the last minute.
Offensive yardage in that first half: FSU 341, USU 152.
It seemed as though it would be more of the same in the second, when the Aggies still couldn't find consistency with the ball. But they actually outgained and outscored the Bulldogs in the second, just not enough to win.
The Utah State defense tried real hard to set the table for its offense, intercepting Carr twice in the third quarter. The Fresno quarterback had thrown only one pick in six home games. The Aggies couldn't make any hay either time Saturday night
Still, they topped off an admirable effort this season, even in defeat. They withstood the loss of the most indispensable player in the state Chuckie Keeton as well as other significant contributors. As mentioned, they also lost Keeton's replacement in the title game.
And yet, they battled on.
"We've got a bunch of fighters," Wells said. "I'm proud of them. ... They continue to move this program [forward]."
The Aggies stepped up in conference to the Mountain West and won their division, setting up their appearance here. They fell short. But if there's disappointment in that outcome, and there is, that displays maybe as much as anything the progress Wells and his team have made, enduring disappointment at coming one win short of a league title against a difficult opponent on its home field.
Nobody wanted to make too big a thing out of any kind of moral victory late Saturday night, but Wells and his team would and should take the result with pride. An 8-5, 7-2 in league, record heading into a bowl game, all with your starting quarterback long gone, was a notable achievement. And an even bigger one: Not one soul whispered the name or bemoaned the absence at the helm of Gary Andersen.
That said more than enough.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.