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LOGAN — As Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton limped off the field, the tears of Aggies fans could be felt and heard.
For all the preseason hype the Aggies generated, their Heisman candidate quarterback left the field — never to return again for the remainder of the 2013 season.
But with great struggle comes a chance at great victory, and the Aggies reeled off five consecutive victories to earn a berth in the first-ever Mountain West Championship game, as Utah State travels to play Fresno State in Fresno’s Bulldog Stadium.
“We’re extremely excited and honored to be in the first-ever Mountain West Championship game,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “It’s been a year filled with a lot of adversity for our program, and I’m just proud of our players for all the things they’ve done throughout the season, especially over the last five weeks to overcome a lot of that.”
Fresno State, which had hoped for a BCS bid, saw its hopes of a premier bowl game shattered with a 62-52 loss to San Jose State last week.
Despite the loss, Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRutyer said his team has mentally recovered from the loss.
“We’re extremely excited to be playing the inaugural Mountain West Championship,” he said. “We were obviously bitterly disappointed Friday, but the sun came up Saturday, and we’ve got it resolved that we’re not going to finish our season that way. We’ve got a great opportunity against a really outstanding Utah State team.”
The game is a matchup of the Mountain West’s best offense battling with the best defense — a matchup that Wells said will be an interesting subplot to watch.
“I think that’s the most obvious challenge that we face, right there,” Wells said, referring to the battle between league-best attacks. “Our defensive staff and our defensive players will relish that challenge and look forward to that. We always start with stopping the run; (Derek Carr) and his receivers are extremely talented, so they have great skill on the perimeter. Whether we’ll be able to contain them and play well on defense; that will be the biggest question.”
Fresno State’s offense has been one of the nation’s best, averaging 47.3 points a game. And quarterback Derek Carr leads the No. 1 passing offense, averaging 410.3 yards a game.
A large area of concern for Fresno State is its defense, which surrendered 736 yards of offense to San Jose State. DeRutyer said the unit needs to refocus quickly.
“We’ve got to do a much better job with our eye discipline and our technique,” said DeRutyer, who specialized as a defensive coach. “To me, the biggest issue we had last Saturday was we had guys who didn’t play to their ability, and then we had guys next to them who didn’t trust that the guy next to them was going to be doing the right thing. Whenever you have that situation, you’re not going to play good defense.”
After years of lackluster performance, the Aggies are in position to win consecutive conference championships for the first time since John L. Smith led Utah State to back-to-back conference titles in ’96 and ’97.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said the Aggies have established a foundation that will be strong for years to come.
“I think, building on last year’s program, they would be pleasantly surprised with what Matt Wells has done,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if they exceeded expectations with eight wins, but I think they’re very deserving of being in the game. I think this has been a fantastic year, with one more game and a bowl to go.”
Another subplot in the game to note is the strong relationship between the head coaches, who coached together at Navy.
DeRutyer said the game puts their friendship in a unique position.
“Matt (Wells) and I have known each other for at least a dozen years now,” DeRutyer said. “I’ve always been impressed with Matt. I told him, ‘If it’s not going to be the Air Force Academy … I hope it’s you guys (Utah State) in the championship,’ just because I have so much respect for Matt. Selfishly, if I’m going to lose, I would rather have it go to one of my buddies.”