The inaugural Mountain West title game is the nightcap to Championship Saturday, with Utah State traveling to Fresno State for the first meeting between these two schools since 2011.
Much has changed since the last meeting between these two programs. Both teams have different head coaches (Matt Wells, Utah State and Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State) and are back in the same conference after the Aggies joined the Mountain West prior to the 2013 season.
Fresno State was considered a heavy favorite to win the West Division in the preseason, but Utah State’s berth in the championship game is a bit of a surprise, especially after the Aggies lost quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a season-ending knee injury against BYU. Utah State also had a little help from San Diego State, who knocked off Boise State late in the year to give the Aggies the edge in the division battle.
Fresno State holds a 16-10-1 series edge over Utah State. The Bulldogs have won five in a row over the Aggies. Utah State’s last win over the Bulldogs was in 2006, and its last victory in Fresno occurred in 1980.
Utah State at Fresno State
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Fresno State -3.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Control the offensive tempo
Although Utah State freshman quarterback Darell Garretson has played well in limited action, the Aggies don’t want to turn this game into a shootout. On the other hand, Fresno State leads the Mountain West with an average of 47.3 points a game. The Bulldogs have scored 70 touchdowns this year, largely on the right arm of quarterback Derek Carr. The senior has tossed 45 touchdowns to only five picks on 552 pass attempts. Fresno State also has a deep receiving corps, led by Davante Adams (113 receptions) and Josh Harper (79 grabs). Harper is questionable for Saturday’s game due to a groin injury. Utah State leads the Mountain West in pass defense, holding opponents to just 217.5 yards per game and only seven passing touchdowns in eight conference contests. The Aggies have played their best against some of the top competition in the conference, as they held San Jose State’s David Fales to no touchdown passes and 314 yards earlier this year. Fresno State’s offensive gameplan should be simple: Control the tempo and force the Aggies out of their comfort zone. Utah State has recorded 29 sacks this year, so protecting Carr and hitting Adams, Harper and Isaiah Burse on quick passes will be critical. If the Bulldogs get ahead early, it could spell trouble for Utah State.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: Establish the run
It’s not a secret Fresno State would prefer to jump out to an early lead and force Utah State to play from behind on offense. But the Aggies need to play their game and to their strengths, which is establishing the run and solid defense. In Mountain West games, Fresno State ranks fifth in the conference against the run, allowing 157.3 yards per game. Utah State’s line features four senior starters, while running back Joey DeMartino has recorded four 100-yard efforts in five games. If DeMartino and Robert Marshall find running room, it will allow the Aggies to keep Fresno State’s offense on the sideline and limit the possessions for Carr. Also, keeping the down and distance in manageable situations for quarterback Darell Garretson will be crucial for Utah State’s hopes of winning.
Key Player: Darell Garretson, QB, Utah State
Garretson was slated to redshirt this season, but the freshman was forced into action after Chuckie Keeton suffered a knee injury against BYU. As expected with a true freshman, Garretson has experienced his share of ups and downs. However, he has played relatively well, throwing for 1,127 yards and nine touchdowns, while completing 63 percent of his passes. Fresno State ranks 10th in the Mountain West against the pass, with opposing quarterbacks completing 63.4 percent of their throws. The Bulldogs have played with big leads in some games, so the pass defense numbers are slightly skewed. Garretson doesn't have to win this game with his arm, but he needs to be efficient and eliminate any mistakes.
Fresno State’s offense has been on fire this season, with only two teams holding the Bulldogs under 40 points. Utah State’s defense ranks as the best in the Mountain West, and the front seven and secondary will present a challenge for Derek Carr and his receivers. The Aggies need to control the clock with their rushing attack and ease quarterback Darell Garretson into the game. Utah State will give Fresno State a battle, but the Bulldogs are at home and hungry to bounce back after losing to San Jose State last Friday.
Prediction: Fresno State 34, Utah State 27