After 12 games in a season of adversity, few thought the Utah State football team would be in this position.
But despite losing five offensive starters to season-ending injuries, the Aggies can clinch their first ever Mountain West Conference title with a win over No. 23 Fresno State on Saturday.
“I’ve seen enough of them to know how good they are,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “Dave Schramm has done a great job with the offense. They’re really explosive and very creative. They’re very outside-the-box thinkers and I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing right now.”
Fresno State boasts the nation’s No. 1 passing offense and the fourth-highest scoring offense at 47.3 points per game, while Utah State boasts the seventh-best scoring defense in the country having allowed just 16.8 points per game.
“Our defense has a major challenge on our hands,” Wells said. “That will be a huge part of the game – the number one offense in the Mountain West against the number one defense in the Mountain West.”
Lining up under center for the Bulldogs is senior quarterback Derek Carr, a Heisman candidate that has thrown for nearly 4,500 yards and 45 touchdowns this season — including games of more than 500 yards in his last two outings.
“The first thing is that he’s got an NFL arm,” Wells said. “He’s got a strong arm. He’s very, very accurate and he has one of the quickest releases I’ve ever seen.”
Carr has been held under 300 yards just once this season, a 298-yard performance against San Diego State on Oct 26. On the flip side, the Aggies’ defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to top the 300-yard plateau three times in 12 games.
Utah’s Travis Wilson, San Jose State’s David Fales and Boise State’s Joe Southwick each reached 300 yards, with Utah and Boise State coming away with wins.
Senior cornerback Nevin Lawson has recorded a team-high four interceptions this season, part of the 14 passes Utah State has intercepted in its last eight games after failing to record an interception in the first four games.
Carr has thrown five interceptions all season and has been sacked just eight times.
“Derek Carr is a very talented player, very smart,” said junior linebacker Zach Vigil. “His O-line does a good job of keeping him clean and free.”
Aiding the Bulldogs cause is a home-winning streak. Fresno State 12-0 at home in the past two seasons.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Wells said. “It will be a great atmosphere, we know that and we recognize that. Coach (Tim) DeRuyter and his staff have done a fantastic job in the last two years.”
Offensively the Aggies will be up against a Bulldogs defense that has allowed 30.2 points per game to opponents and is ranked No. 100 nationally having allowed 436.9 yards per game.
It bodes well for a USU offense that has averaged 33.9 points per game this season, including five games of 40-plus points. USU has had 11 different players catch a touchdown pass and six different players rush for a score this season.
“It’s a big game, Mountain West Championship on the line, so you’ve got to leave it all on the line,” said sophomore wide receiver Bruce Natson. “As far as the offense, we have to score points this week and we know that. I know our defense is going to step up and do a good job, I just feel like the offense needs to step it up a notch this week.”
With a victory against Fresno State, Utah State would win its second-straight outright league championship and fourth in school history. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 16-10-1 and have won the last five meetings.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif.