It’s come down to this.
Fresno State (10-1, 7-1 MW) hosts Utah State (8-4, 7-1) in the inaugural Mountain West championship game Saturday (7 p.m.) at Bulldog Stadium.
The Bulldogs, this year’s West Division champions, are looking to repeat as conference champions.
Utah State’s defense is going to make it a challenge, said Curtis Lundstrom, sports editor of the Utah Statesman, Utah State’s student newspaper.
Here is more of what Lundstrom shared with The Collegian heading into Saturday’s game.
THE COLLEGIAN: Chuckie Keeton went down early in the season and Darell Garettson has seemed to do a really nice job stepping in for the Aggies at quarterback. What was the general feel from the team and around campus after Keeton was lost for the season, and how does Garretson’s style of play differ from what we saw in Keeton?
UTAH STATESMAN: When Chuckie Keeton went down, the general feeling around campus seemed to be disheartened and deflated.
Expectations and hopes were sky high with Keeton leading the team. He’s a special player, and you could see how much he meant to the team with the eerily quiet stadium during the game against BYU while he was on the turf and then put on crutches for the second half.
Fortunately, Garretson, who everyone figured would be the future of the team after Keeton graduated, didn’t take long to prove he was ready to play and step in despite the drastic difference in style. Keeton’s accuracy and mobility were his biggest strengths. He definitely made plays with his legs.
Garretson on the other hand, while he certainly still has mobility, is more of a traditional pocket passer. His confidence and accuracy are steadily increasing each week as he becomes more comfortable on the field.
Utah State went through a tough nonconference slate this season going against USC, Utah and BYU, but it doesn’t look like the program has skipped a beat with first-year coach Matt Wells. What’s been his impact on the program, and what were some of the team’s and community’s first impressions of him? Do they differ now?
Utah State adores Matt Wells. He’s a USU graduate, played quarterback for the Aggies during his college days, and has many ties to the city of Logan and the university. Few if any doubted that he was the man to replace Gary Andersen when he was appointed.
He has picked up right where Andersen left off in building the program. The players believe in him, and he believes in his players.
Though Wells will give all the credit to the players, there’s no doubt that he’s a large part of the reason the Aggies have overcome losing five starters on offense to earn a spot in the MWC championship.
The attitude of the fans hasn’t changed a bit since he was named head coach. If anything Aggie faithful have fallen more in love with him with what he’s done.
When Wells’ name popped up on a list of potential coaches at an ACC school, USU fans were quick to take action and show Wells how much he’s valued here at Utah State.
The Mountain Division was a neck-and-neck race between Boise State and Utah State most of the season. Boise State beat the Aggies, then the Aggies got some help from San Diego State and ultimately clinched the division with their win against Wyoming. What was the immediate reaction from the team after that Boise State loss, and how did the team handle the talk centered on the Mountain Division race?
As Wells has said all year, the goal each week has been to go 1-0 and keep the focus on the task at hand.
The goal has been an MWC title all year, but the team has been very adamant about taking it one game at a time. The talk centered around the division race was purely “Let’s go 1-0 this week and make sure we’re part of the race come the end of the season.”
After last year’s success, fans fully expected USU to compete for the conference title, and the team expected to as well.
The timing of Keeton’s injury was unfortunate. Losing Keeton the week before facing Boise State left USU in a tough spot with no clear second string QB. It took a week or two for Garretson to earn the starting spot, and so the Broncos capitalized against an Aggie squad adapting to a new quarterback.
But once Garretson got his feet underneath him, there was little doubt that USU would do what it needed to, and, fortunately, the Aztecs helped out and gave Boise State a second conference loss. (Also a thanks to Fresno for handing them the first one).
Who are some players on defense to keep an eye on?
Defensively, the Aggies linebacker corps is an anchor. Zach and Nick Vigil, or the “Super Vigil Brothers” as some of USU’s fans refer to them, have played exceptionally well this season. Throw in Jake Doughty as the third linebacker, and there’s three solid guys flying around making plays.
Cornerback Nevin Lawson is another guy that’s been a playmaker this season for the Aggies. He’s got four of USU’s 14 interceptions this season and has been given the task of defending an opponent’s No. 1 wide receiver this season.
He was the primary guy against USC’s Marquis Lee, who is widely regarded as one of the top receivers in the country, and kept him in check.
Kyler Fackrell and Brian Suite are a couple of others worth keeping an eye on.
What are some keys to victory for Utah State?
First and foremost, the Aggies can’t shoot themselves in the foot. Penalties have been a big issue throughout the season, and turnovers have caused some concern as well.
USU has to protect the ball and not commit dumb penalties like pass interference and false starts. Especially being on the road in a raucous environment.
Secondly, USU has to slow the Fresno State passing attack. You’re not going to shut down a potent passing game like the Bulldogs have entirely, but you have to keep it in check.
The defense needs to get in the backfield and disrupt Derek Carr, or he’s going to pick the secondary apart like he has every other defense this season.
But if USU’s secondary can out-physical the Bulldog receivers while the defensive line goes after Carr, it would shift the game majorly in the Aggies’ favor.
Fortunately for Utah State, all good things must come to an end. I think USU snaps Fresno’s home winning streak with a 41-31 win over the Bulldogs.