LOGAN — Trailing by 20 and without its starting quarterback, the Utah State Aggies were on the brink of a disastrous home loss to Nevada. Twenty-four unanswered points later, USU clinched bowl eligibility for the fifth consecutive year with a 31-27 victory over the Wolf Pack.
“I’d say more than anything, this was the type of win that we really needed as a team,” said Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who filled in for starting quarterback Kent Myers.
“We’ve been down, really, since San Diego State. We’ve just been a little bit different mentally as a team,” Keeton said. “But, being able to be down by 20 points at one point and of course come back and win, it just showed that we can knock down these walls and today was a perfect day to do it. I’m just proud of the guys that are downstairs in the locker room right now.”
Coming off back-to-back losses, USU looked completely discombobulated in the first half after Myers left early on with a shoulder injury. The Aggies turned it over two times in the first quarter, leading to 14 Nevada points, and mustered only a 96-yard kickoff return offensively.
The senior QB, who so many times for the Aggies has been the injured quarterback being replaced, came off the bench to fill in for the sophomore Myers. Myers exited on USU’s second series with an injury after throwing a pick-six.
Keeton led the Aggies on two third-quarter scoring drives, completing 14 passes for 109 yards, while rushing for another 52 yards — including a key 16-yard jaunt on third and long on the Aggies first scoring drive of the third quarter.
“Chuckie Keeton made a lot of plays on third down today.” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “I just think it’s one of the most important attributes you can have as a quarterback, is how you play on third down. To be able to extend drives, to make the plays that he made with his feet today, I’ve got all the respect in the world for him. I think Chuckie Keeton played a heck of a game.”
While Keeton helped rally the offense, it was the Aggie defense that gave Utah State its first lead of the game with 6:55 remaining. Following an Aaron Dalton punt that pinned the Wolf Pack inside their own 1-yard line, Kyler Fackrell recovered a Nevada fumble in the end zone.
After giving up a 60-yard rushing touchdown to James Butler on the Wolf Pack’s second play of the third quarter, the Aggie defense only allowed 51 total yards for the rest of the game.
“After that first drive when we came out of halftime, they weren’t able to score, so I think we picked it up at the end,” said Fackrell, who leads the nation with five fumble recoveries. “We were able to be a little more assignment-sound and get a little more pressure on the quarterback.”
On the ensuing Nevada drive, the Wolf Pack moved the ball to the Aggies’ 44-yard line, but ultimately came up short on a fourth-and-1 attempt, giving the ball back to the Aggies with just under three minutes to play.
Devante Mays — who finished with 133 yards and two touchdowns — helped the Aggies pick up a key first down and Jake Thompson tacked on a 42-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining to extend the lead.
Nick Vigil recovered a Nevada fumble on the final play of the game as the Wolf Pack’s last-ditch lateral effort was thwarted.
Despite terrific field position in the first quarter — mostly due to a stellar return game — the Aggies came up empty in the red zone with field goal misses from 20 and 29 yards from Brock Warren. Meanwhile, Nevada cashed in on its red zone chances, jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
Hunter Sharp’s 96-yard kickoff return helped the Aggies hang around, but a 33-yard TD run by Butler with 2:16 left in the half gave the visitors a 14-point advantage at the break.
“It was an unbelievable team win,” Wells said. “We’re still trying to figure this team out in a lot of ways, but I’m going to tell you one thing they’re not is quitters ... There’s too much investment, too much sweat and blood in this program to just give up. It hasn’t always gone our way this year, but I’m going to tell you what, it did today. The resiliency they showed is motivating to me.”
Utah State (6-5, 5-3) finishes up its regular season play next Saturday as the Aggies host in-state rival BYU (8-3). USU defeated the Cougars last year in Provo, 35-20.
Follow Tim Olsen on Twitter, @TheRealTO.