Fresno State safety Dalen Jones’ first start ended with the game sealing interception in the final minute. Jones added to the list of unexpected contributors that helped lead the Bulldogs to an 11-1 season and achieving their goal of winning the Mountain West Championship.
"I really can’t say enough about how proud I am of these guys,” Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Their resilience after what happened last week, it was a tough blow for our guys, but no one hung their heads and we came back with a great week of practice and beat a very resilient Utah State team.”
Moments later, Derek Carr kneeled out the final seconds of the game and thousands of fans rushed on to the field. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson handed DeRuyter the conference championship trophy and for the first time since 1991, the Bulldogs won’t have to share it.
“Sharing a title was great with Boise and San Diego State, but as a competitor that wasn't enough,” Carr said. “We had to come back and finish this thing off right.”
The Mountain West Championship featured Fresno State’s high powered offense and Utah State’s tough defense, but the other side of the ball became just as an important. Fresno State’s defense came ready to play with a conference title on the line after giving up 62 points a week ago.
"I've said it all week long, the performance that we put on last week against San Jose State that's not the defense that we are,” safety Derron Smith said. “You know that one performance doesn't define who we are as a defense so, we knew the mistakes that we made and we knew that they were correctable.”
The Bulldogs did make a personnel change, moving safety Charles Washington to cornerback and starting Dalen Jones at safety. The Aggies still connected on three deep balls in the first half, but that was all the success that Utah State’s offense had in the first 30 minutes. Utah State had just 152 yards of total offense on 33 plays, 124 of which came on the three long passes. The Aggies failed to establish the run with just 8 yards on the ground at halftime.
Fresno State had trouble moving the ball against Utah State’s strong defense as well, scoring just 3 points on their first four drives. Derek Carr got into rhythm in the second quarter, however. He led the Bulldogs on back-to-back touchdown drives, capped by touchdown passes to Marcel Jensen and Isaiah Burse.
Up 17-0, the Bulldogs’ began to stumble on offense. A 76 yard drive ended on downs, but the Bulldogs got back into the redzone in the final minute. The Bulldogs were 11 yards away from extending their lead to 24 points; instead they went into half up only 10. A fumbled pitch from Carr to Marteze Waller was recovered by USU linebacker Jake Doughty and ran back 86 yards for a touchdown.
Derek Carr threw two interceptions on the Bulldogs’ first two drives in the third quarter as well, but it didn’t hurt them as Fresno State’s defense continued to shut down the Aggies. Carr made them pay for not taking advantage, leading the offense 59 yards on 14 plays and taking a 24-7 lead with a touchdown pass to Davante Adams.
Utah State wasn’t finished yet, though.
The Aggies finally sustained a drive to open the fourth quarter. Despite quarterback Darell Garretson getting knocked out of the game, the Aggies found the endzone for the first time on offense to cut the lead to 10.
Utah State surprised the Bulldogs with a quick onside kick, something that the Bulldogs have struggled with this season. The Aggies recovered and cashed in with a field goal. Suddenly a game that Fresno State had controlled was back within one possession.
The Bulldogs ran nearly 6 and a half minutes off the clock in their next two drives, but both ended on failed fourth down attempts that could have helped put the game away.
Utah State got one last chance with 1:41 remaining in regulation. A 31 yard pass from Craig Harrison to Ronald Butler put them into Bulldog territory and within striking distance to tie the game. However, Harrison’s next pass was intercepted by Dalen Jones to seal the game.
“We had opportunities to put the game away and we couldn't,” DeRuyter said. “It is a credit to them. Their defense forced a lot of turnovers, but at the end of the day, these resilient guys in here got it done. I love `em and can't say enough about them and I am just glad we have one more game left with this group."
Fresno State accepted an invitation to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl following their victory. The Bulldogs will play a Pac-12 opponent on Dec 21.