Utah State took care of business against UNLV Saturday afternoon, garnering their second conference win, and staying in position to fight for the conference title. The win, a comfortable two-touchdown victory (34-20 was the final score), was much needed after the Aggies fell in a frustrating road game last week against CSU. The big story of the game, however, was not the win, but how it was accomplished, or rather, who was lost in the process.
Third string quarterback Craig Harrison, who took over the reins for the Aggie offense after backup Darell Garretson left the game last week with an injured wrist (arguably the reason why USU left Fort Collins with a loss), came into the game with most people (myself included) doubting his ability to be a winning QB. I have seldom been so happy at being proven wrong. He showed an impressive combination of speed, mobility, and accuracy; through the air attack, he accumulated 221 yards, completing 13 of 23 attempts with 3 touchdowns, and gaining 39 yards on the ground from nine rushing attempts. The Aggies led UNLV 27-14 when another tragedy hit the USU QB corps.
Harrison had left the game for a series near the beginning of the second quarter after taking a heavy hit, but came back the following series and played without problem till the end of the third quarter. Disaster struck then, when he took another ugly sack from UNLV defensive lineman Jordan Sparkman. The hit twisted his leg under him, and the lines from Queen's legendary song came unbidden to my mind: "And another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust!"
Harrison was gone, probably for the season, just as he had redeemed himself in the eyes of his critics. And then there were two... Fourth string true freshman quarterback Kent Myers was thrust into the starting position with only another true freshman, Logan High's DJ Nelson, to back him up. In the final quarter of the game, he confidently led the USU offense, going 3/5 passing for 45 yards with 28 yards rushing on three attempts. He was given a pretty tight leash, understandably, given his age, experience, and the vindictive eye of the football gods that has been so focused on his predecessors, but he did well with what he was given, and didn't play with any hesitancy or fear.
Joe Hill scored on a seven yard run a third of the way through the fourth quarter to cap the Aggies' scoring for the day, and the defense held UNLV in check enough that the Rebels' final score, a 41 yard TD pass halfway through the final quarter, didn't matter. The defense shone throughout the day. They added two more interceptions to their already impressive season tally- the Aggies are tied for 5th in the nation for coming up with picks- and continued to dominate the line of scrimmage, picking up ten tackles for loss and six sacks. They are ranked 4th in the nation in rushing yards allowed, permitting a mere 89 yards per game, and are ranked 29th in total yards allowed.
Aggies special teams play was strong throughout the day as well. Nick Diaz is finally showing consistency in the kicking game, as he went 2/2 on field goals with a 49 yarder in the third quarter, and 4/4 on extra points; Jaron Bentrude averaged over 47 yards per punt on seven punts; and the Aggies were able to block both a field goal attempt and an extra point on the day.
The story going forward will be a series of questions: Will a fourth string QB be able to guide the team to wins in the coming weeks? More importantly, will the Aggies be able to overcome a conference loss two straight years to get to their second consecutive conference championship game? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: USU is one of the toughest programs the MWC has seen in years. The resilience of this team is a testament to the strength and depth the program has developed over the past few years, and is a tribute to the coaches who have made it possible. To the men on the team: Aggie Nation stands with you.
Oh, and also, a quick thought for Kent Myers: Watch your back... we want you in one piece.