FRESNO, Calif. — During the five-game winning streak that vaulted Utah State into Saturday night’s Mountain West Conference championship game, the outstanding play of the Aggie defense has been the difference.
The Aggies have held four of their last five opponents to 10 points or less and an average of just 279 yards per game.
However, they’ll be facing a whole new challenge Saturday when they take on one of the top offenses in the nation in Fresno State, which ranks first in passing offense, second in total offense and fourth in scoring offense.
“Our defense has a major challenge on our hands,’’ said Utah State coach Matt Wells. “They’re an extremely talented team and they have skill that just oozes out of that program.''
Derek Carr, the younger brother of former NFL quarterback David Carr, leads the Bulldog offense. He averages an NCAA-leading 405.6 passing yards per game.
“He’s got a strong arm. He’s very accurate and has one of the quickest releases I’ve ever seen,’’ said Wells. Fresno State offensive coordinator “Dave Schramm has done a great job with the offense. They’re very explosive and creative.’’
As for Utah State’s defense, which ranks seventh in the nation in scoring defense, Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter is impressed.
“I see a very physical, good-sized group. They’re extremely sound and chase the ball well and play with a great confidence,’’ he said. “It’s a great reflection on what coach (Todd) Orlando has done coming in as the new coordinator.’’
OLD FRIENDS: USU’s Wells and Fresno State’s DeRuyter have been friends since they coached together at Navy for three years from 1999 to 2001.
“I've got a lot of respect for Timmy,’’ said Wells. “We've spent a lot of time together. Tim and I have exchanged a lot of calls and texts over the last year, just in him helping me as a first-year head coach and sharing with me. We always teased each other that for the next two years we were OK, we could share secrets because we weren’t going to play each other. I guess we both never thought (playing each other in the title game) would really happen just because of the odds.’’
As for DeRuyter, he said, “I’ve always been impressed with Matt. I teased him last spring when the schedules came out and said, ‘Hey look ... I hope we play you guys in the championship,' because I have so much respect for Matt. Personally if I’m going to lose, I’d rather have it be to one of my buddies. I wish him all the success except for this Saturday.’’
PRIME TIME: The Aggies have had most of their games nationally televised this year, mostly on ESPN or Fox Sports 1. This week’s game will be on network television — CBS — in prime time.
For the Aggies, it's a big deal.
“You can't put a price tag on it,’’ said Wells. “From recruiting to marketing to branding, all those kind of things, you can't put a price tag on it. For admissions and people looking at coming to school here, for the football program. I've said it all along that you have to go and play well. The people that tune in will see a really good game and a program that's fun to watch.”
TOUGH PLACE TO PLAY: The Aggies and Bulldogs have a long history, going back to their days in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and later the Big West. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 16-10-1, including a 12-2-1 record at home. The last Aggie win at Fresno was a 14-0 victory in 1980.
The Aggies have won 12 straight league games on the road, while the Bulldogs have won 12 straight at home
“We’ve had three sellouts so far this year and our guys play with a different level of excitement when we play at Bulldog Stadium,’’ said DeRuyter. “You can’t help it when you have 41,000 and it’s just busting at the seams with energy. Our guys have played up to that and to be able to host the inaugural Mountain West championship, our guys are really fired up about it.’’
“It’s a tough place to play,’’ said Wells, who both played there and coached games while at Tulsa and Utah State. “It’ll be loud. They play well at home and it’s a good crowd.’’
The last time the Aggies played at Fresno was on Oct. 15, 2011 when the Bulldogs won 31-21.