Fresno, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - Former Western Athletic Conference foes are set to battle in the first-ever Mountain West Conference Championship game, as the 24th-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs welcome the Utah State Aggies to the Golden State on Saturday night.
Up until last week, the Bulldogs had their sights set on being the latest BCS buster from west of the Mississippi, but the team watched a 10-game win streak come crashing to a halt at San Jose State as the Spartans pulled off an exciting 62-52 win.
FSU, which had won 15 straight regular-season dates before confronting the Spartans, is still in the hunt for its first conference title in more than two decades, but clearly every one of the Bulldogs had bigger plans that were shattered during the record-setting contest last week.
"It hurts tremendously. Our guys each week I thought were prepared and I thought went into this one with a great game plan," head coach Tim DeRuyter said. "You got to hand it to San Jose State, we got some things to work on, but it hurts for the fact that it was in our grasp but we let it go."
The Bulldogs, winners of the West Division title in the MWC with a record of 7-1, are going up against a Utah State group that is a surprising representative from the Mountain Division where it produced seven wins in eight opportunities.
The reason for the stunning outcome is that the Aggies made it happen with a five-game win streak down the stretch and their starting quarterback for the season, Chuckie Keeton, watching from the sidelines with a knee injury that ended his campaign in early October. Boise State was expected to take the division title, but with a 35-7 win over Wyoming last Saturday the Aggies proved the skeptics wrong.
"It's one of the best feelings I've ever felt," said USU head coach Matt Wells. "It's what you get into this for, to play for championships. We said it in January, we said it in August ... Here we are on Nov. 30 with half a championship."
The all-time series favors the Bulldogs by a 16-10-1 count, although this is the first meeting between the programs with both being members of the MWC.
Taking over for Keeton in the huddle has been Darrell Garretson and he has more than met the challenge. Against Wyoming, the youngster converted 20-of-29 passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns, against just a single interception. Lending a hand on the ground was Joey DeMartino who, in addition to putting up 112 yards and a touchdown in the rout, also became the 17th player in program history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.
Defensively, the star of the game for USU was Nick Vigil who registered four tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, as the Aggies limited Wyoming to a feeble 190 yards of total offense.
For the season, the Utah State defense has stepped up to limit opponents to just 111.6 ypg on the ground and 321.4 ypg overall, both of which have the group ranked 11th in the country this week. Add in the pass defense which has an efficiency rating of 109.22 and it is easy to see how this team again ranks as one of the best overall defenses in the country with only 16.8 ppg allowed.
The biggest positive for Garretson is that he hasn't tried to do too much, too fast in the absence of Keeton, instead he has converted 63.0 percent of his passes for an average of 187.8 ypg. What has to be a comfort to the signal caller is having a total of 12 players who have scored on at least one reception, with half of them having at least three TDs to their credit, which means Garretson has plenty of options at his disposal.
However, when it comes to passing attacks, Garretson and the Aggies fall far short of what Derek Carr and Fresno State have been able to generate this season. Against San Jose State, Carr threw for 519 yards and six touchdowns, all of those scores coming in the first half, but still it wasn't nearly enough as the FSU offense stalled in the second half of the biggest game of the season.
"Guys are tore up, as well they should be," Carr said of the loss. "This will be easier to put [behind us] because we are playing for our No. 1 goal, and that's a conference championship. It's so hard to win every game, it really is."
Unfortunately, for as well as the FSU offense performed for 30 minutes, the Bulldogs defense simply could not keep it together as they allowed SJSU quarterback David Fales to throw for 547 yards and six touchdowns of his own, adding another TD and 33 yards on six rushing attempts. After 11 regular season games, the Bulldogs owned the 100th-ranked defense as it gave up 436.9 ypg.
Still, as faulty as the defense can be for the Bulldogs, the star of the show is still Carr and his talented receivers. The quarterback leads the nation in passing yard with 405.6 ypg, his closest challenger being Oregon State's Sean Mannion with 366.9 ypg. Carr is also the only player in the country with more than 380 ypg in total offense, producing 418.0 ypg while throwing at least one touchdown in 31 straight games.
Carr hasn't done it alone however, utilizing Davante Adams (113 catches, 1,477 yards, 22 TDs) and Josh Harper (79, 1,011, 13) and the rest of his receiving corps for a massive 45 TDs and just five interceptions on 552 attempts.