When Utah State's football team entered Romney Stadium Saturday, emotional disaster was inches away. The 20 seniors, dismayed at a season that started 0-5, were playing their final home game. The team was playing its last home game for Chuck Shelton, who resigned as coach four weeks early to alleviate player anxiety. The second-string quarterback had just quit. The Aggies would be playing the NCAA's most prolific offense, trying to keep up in the score with a quarterback whose knee was so bad he couldn't drop back enough to make a normal handoff and couldn't throw normally. (Both wide receivers were hurting anyway.)
If Troy Kopp got on a roll, the Aggies were toast; if Air Pacific got a couple of scores ahead, it was bye-bye Big Blue, a team already in a fragile state of mind.Pacific moved, in 10 plays, to the Utah State 4-yard line on the game's first drive. Oh-oh. Aggie corner Ron Edwards intercepted in the end zone. Whew! The Aggie offense went three-downs-and-a-punt, and in just four plays, Pacific was back on the Aggie 10. Oh-oh. Ron Edwards intercepted Kopp in the end zone again, this time returning 50 yards. WHEW!
The Ags should have been down 14-0; instead, it was 0-0. The defense was making big plays, giving the patched-up offense time to mesh. Instead of needing emotional rescue, they were making a game for themselves. At halftime, the offense and defense each made critical adjustments. The Ags would outscore the Tigers 14-0 in the last half hour as their confidence snowballed.
The 21-14 win over Pacific gives Utah State a decent shot at being second for the second straight year in the Big West. With their fourth win in the last five games, the Aggies moved to 4-6, 4-2. Pacific is 4-7, 3-3.
Edwards totaled three interceptions, all in the end zone, personally squelching 21 possible points. He had two interceptions last week.
The USU defense had five picks, four on Kopp and one on Dave Henigan, who briefly replaced Kopp with 1:02 left in the first half. The special teams added 10.4 yards a play on punt returns, 25 yards a play on kickoff returns and 47.3 yards a kick on punts. Rusty Carlsen tied the third-longest punt in USU history with a first-half 75-yarder.
Finally, Pacific moved to a touchdown at 7:23 of the second quarter, but it took 16 plays, and Utah State's Ron Lopez, doing his Jim McMahon-gimp impression of a rollout, threw 34 yards to Rod Moore in the end zone for a 7-7 tie just four minutes later. "I knew he was going to be open; that safety squatted," said Lopez, turning his feet out to show how he knew when to throw.
All week, Lopez was doubtful because of a medial collateral sprain in his right knee. "It bothered me quite a bit," Lopez said, "but I'm not going to miss these last two games." He paced the sidelines when not playing, keeping the knee from tightening up. "I didn't want to let down the seniors, Chuck or myself," said Lopez, a senior. "We want to send him out a winning coach."
Shelton has tried to downplay the "last-game" idea. "I'm not going to get into that," he said after the game. "I can't handle that emotionally, so I'm not going to do it.
"But I know it's better to go out this way."
Lopez finished 4-for-18 for 77 yards passing with a TD, interception and two sacks. Kopp was 26-for-43 for a TD, four interceptions and four sacks.
Pacific scored again in the first half, but Damon Smith and Rob VanDePol each added interceptions. The Aggies were cool and thinking clearly, and the offense would provide scoring drives of 70 and 48 yards to start the second half, returning the favor and letting the defense rest.
"The game turned on those two long drives when the offensive line took over the football field," said defensive coordinator Fred Bleil.
"We turned it into the physical game we wanted," said Shelton.
The offense went to the pitch to Roger Grant, getting him outside a few times to open the second half. "We had a lot of room to work with outside," said Lopez, "and, also, we just shoved the ball down their throat. The offensive line punished the defense."
"The offensive line and I had a chance to get into a rhythm," said Grant. He had his best day of 1991 with two touchdowns and 131 yards rushing.
A diving, one-handed grab of a 22-yard pass to the UOP 3 was his most spectacular contribution. Grant got the 3-yard TD on one run. "I don't really remember it," said Grant, at a loss to describe how he lunged and brought the ball in with one hand - the hand with the broken finger. "It was the only way I was going to grab it," he said.
Actually, there was no way he was going to grab it, but he did - a perfect description of the game.
"Great heart," said Shelton about his team's effort.
UOP had big success the first half running Ryan Benjamin over left tackle or catching USU on a blitz with shovel passes to Benjamin, who had 99 yards running and 59 receiving in the first half.
"We had a pass-prevent defense on," said VanDePol, one of two Aggie down linemen on most plays. They used a down weakside outside linebacker, too, in a three-man line that was an attempt to free up five pass defenders to shut off the deep stuff Pacific's famous for.
Shelton noted that 90 percent of Pacific's scoring plays have come from beyond 20 yards out.
The USU linemen were double-teamed, and Benjamin had 12-foot holes to stroll through. The Aggies man-defensed Benjamin and played zone on the rest of the Tiger offense.
"The first half, we let them have that run and shovel pass," said Bleil. "We started a little groggy," he added. "Without the interceptions, it would have been a blowout."
At halftime, the defense went basic, to a five-man front, sealing off the run/shovel. Benjamin got only 4 more net yards rushing, 6 receiving. UOP had 115 yards total offense in the second half, 64 on a final drive from their 7 to the USU 29. With :08 left, Kopp threw a Hail Mary that was batted by Jeff Haugen, tipped by Damon Smith (three interceptions in two games) and finally intercepted in the end zone by - who else? - Edwards.
"All I saw was the ball going up in the air," said Edwards. "No. 10 (Jason Edwards) actually caught it, and Damon knocked it loose."
Benjamin's 103 yards rushing tied an NCAA record, his 11th 100+ game this season. Kopp's TD pass gave him 31 this season, 12th in NCAA history. Aaron Turner, however, failed to extend his NCAA record for TD receptions in consecutive games. He'd caught scoring passes in 12 straight.