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CARSON, Calif. — It was a cathartic scene at the Dignity Health Sports Park Saturday Afternoon immediately following Utah State's 46-13 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West Championship game.
Some players sprayed water in the air in celebration, others ran up into the stands to embrace their families. One member of the coaching staff had tears swelling up in his eyes, taking it all in while players put on their championship hats and gathered for a group photo.
Amidst it all, I managed to catch the attention of offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker and inquired into how it felt for his offense to put up such a dominating performance — dropping 46 points against the 11th overall defense in the country.
His immediate reaction wasn't to praise his offense; instead, he gave credit to the Aggies on the other side of scrimmage.
"It starts with our defense," he said.
It was a humble statement from the former co-offensive coordinator at UCF who joined forces with head coach Blake Anderson in Logan to bring a fast-paced, dynamic offense out west. For most of the season, it was the Aggies offense that got much of the credit — and deservedly so. Utah State is 18th nationally in total offense and averaged 456 yards per game.
In arguably one of the biggest games in program history, though, Tucker was right: It was the defense that got it done.
With just one defensive player earning All-Mountain West Conference defensive accolades — linebacker Justin Rice — going up against three All-MWC offensive players. With first-team selections lineman William Dunkle and Zachary Thomas, and second-team running back Greg Bell, many didn't expect the Aggies to match up physically against San Diego State.
Led by Bell, the Aztecs entered Saturday averaging 178 rushing yards per game — a major concern. Although the Aggies defense played well in the latter half of the season, they hadn't performed well in several games against run-heavy squads.
The four schools Utah State faced prior to the Aztecs that finished the regular season averaging 150 or more rushing yards per game all gashed Utah State's defense: Air Force rushed for 437 yards, BYU went for 221, Colorado State ran for 190, and Wyoming went for 362.
But the Aggies rose to the occasion in the championship game.
"I told them that we will be the best defense on the grass today," defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda said.
Utah State limited San Diego State to just 148 rushing yards, 81 yards of which came in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided. Against the two first-team All-MWC offensive linemen, the Aggies dominated the line of scrimmage and got the push they needed to force eight tackles for loss.
Bell looked flustered all game long and took a hard hit by Hale Motu'apaku or whomever else managed to get through the lane. By the third quarter, the Aggie defense appeared to have hit him psychologically as well, and he fumbled the football in the backfield over to the visitors without even getting touched.
"We knew coming in that this team loved to run the ball. So this week we emphasized stopping the run and practiced stopping the stretch, stopping dime," junior defensive end Byron Vaughns said. "Coach Banda getting the gameplay right, coach (Mike) Zuck(erman), all of our DC's, GA's, they got us right with the game plan and told us what to do, what we need to do to come out victorious and we did just that."
"The effort was relentless the entire day," Anderson said. "We challenged them (saying) we need your best today. We didn't have to be better than San Diego State yesterday, we didn't need to be better than them tomorrow, we just need three hours today. And that's exactly what we got."
The defensive intensity began from the get-go Saturday and the first five possessions for San Diego State resulted four punts and a turnover on downs for the Aztecs.
Thanks to the physicality of the Aggies' defensive line and the stinginess of the Aggies linebackers shedding blocks and plugging lanes, the Aztec running game failed to be established. That forced the Aztecs into six different third-and-long passing situations in the first half.
In those pass-expected situations, Aztecs quarterback Jordan Brookshire appeared confused by the defensive coverage and all the blitz packages being thrown his way. With limited time in the pocket, he failed to throw accurately and was 11-of-23 passing on the day, while being sacked five times. San Diego State finished the game 1 of 13 on third downs — 0 of 7 in the first half.
The dominant effort early on was crucial because the Utah State offense failed to get points on their first four possessions.
"Our defense was getting us a bunch of possessions," Tucker said. "So we were able to kind of get in a rhythm."
For the day, it looked like the 11th team nationally in total defense was on the field, but it wasn't the team that had garnered all the attention — and was awarded four players to the MWC defensive first team and two to the All-Defensive second team.
It was the white-clad underdogs.
"The whole week was all about San Diego State's defense," Banda said. "And that didn't sit well with us.
"These kids deserve the respect that they earned today. Super, super happy for them and they bought in, they did everything we've asked."