SALT LAKE CITY — If only Utah State’s return game was as active as its quarterback.
Heisman candidate Chuckie Keeton broke his own record for completions and now ranks third in USU history with career touchdown passes. But his teammates on defense, highly ranked nationally in several categories last season, broke against a defense led on the field by 19-year-old quarterback Travis Wilson and in the booth by veteran Dennis Erickson, a former Pac-12 coach of the year.
And a foot’s nudge of the ball set the Aggies back, too, in their 30-26 loss to rival Utah.
Andy Phillips had never kicked in any football game entering Thursday, when he made two field goals in the fourth quarter and three overall — including the go-ahead kick with 6:38 left. It halted USU’s bid at Rice-Eccles Stadium to win their second straight against Utah after previously losing 12 straight to their rival.
But perhaps his most pivotal kick, which did anything but send the ball flying, altered the course of the game. A 13-yard onside kick with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter sent the ball down the middle of the field, taking USU’s return team completely off-guard. It led to a go-ahead score answered just once more by Keeton and the Aggie offense.
“It was a big emotional lift for them,” USU coach Matt Wells said. “That’s a total team loss, every one of us, starting with me at the top.
“We knew it was going to be an exciting game, down to the wire. They made one more play than we did.”
Before a crowd nearly cracking the top 15 in the stadium’s history, Keeton (31-of-40, 314 yards, two touchdowns; 15 carries, 89 yards) put on a show. Three dazzling scrambles early in the fourth quarter highlighted a 12-play, five-minute drive that, with a 24-yard field goal from Nick Diaz, gave his team their final lead at 26-24. It was a direct response to the onside kick coming just seconds after a 45-yard field goal by Phillips, his first in any football game, brought the Utes within six.
Wilson, who started six games last season in Utah’s 5-7 campaign, capitalized with two long passes covering half the field to Sean Fitzgerald (five receptions, 79 yards), allowing Karl Williams (12 carries, 46 yards) to plunge two yards for a 24-23 lead. Wilson did his best to keep up with Keeton, throwing 17-of-28 for 302 yards and two scores.
After USU gained their final lead, Wilson tore down its defense, throwing a 35-yard zinger to Denham near the Aggie goal line. Phillips’ 19-yard field goal was Utah’s final go-ahead score.
Keeton had another shot, but a three-and-out permitted Wilson to conduct a 10-play, 50-yard drive that took four-and-a-half minutes, capped by Phillips’ 38-yard field goal and leaving Keeton just 11 seconds to counter.
Multiple USU receivers, none of whom were among the Aggies’ top three receivers last year, made their mark as Keeton set his. Sophomore Bruce Natson (nine receptions, 83 yards) and senior Travis Van Leeuwen (five receptions, 107 yards) each set career-highs in both receptions and yards.
Sophomore Brandon Swindall became the first Aggie with multiple touchdown receptions in the same game since Matt Austin had two at New Mexico State late in the 2011 season.
“Seeing some young receivers step up and make plays… those were high points,” Wells said. “Our kids are high character and they played really, really hard.”
But a defense that ranked seventh in scoring (15.4 ppg) could never find a handle on the shifty Utah offense that even lost wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who was supposed to be one of Utah’s top wideouts this year, early in the first quarter.
“I’m proud of our kids. They’ve got a lot of fight in them. They’re going to win a lot of games,” Wells said. “We fully expected to walk in here and win. I think that belief will take us a long way.”
Utah State 26
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Utah State 3 14 6 3—26
Utah 14 0 10 6—30
Utah_D.Anderson 3 pass from Wilson (Phillips kick), 11:47.
USU—Diaz 26 field goal, 7:37.
Utah—J.Murphy 30 pass from Wilson (Phillips kick), 1:37.
USU—Swindall 15 pass from Keeton (Diaz kick), 14:11.
USU—Swindall 4 pass from Keeton (Diaz kick), :20.
USU—Keeton 15 run (kick failed), 11:52.
Utah—Phillips 45 field goal, 2:24.
Utah—K.Williams 2 run (Phillips kick), :54.
USU—Diaz 24 field goal, 10:39.
Utah—Phillips 19 field goal, 6:38.
Utah—Phillips 38 field goal, :19.
First downs 27 24
Rushes-yards 39-173 44-148
Passing 314 302
Comp-Att-Int 31-40-0 17-28-0
Return Yards 2 0
Punts-Avg. 5-40.4 5-43.6
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-1
Penalties-Yards 7-94 5-30
Time of Possession 32:04 27:56
Rushing—Utah State, Keeton 15-85, Hill 18-75, DeMartino 3-7, Natson 3-6. Utah, Poole 12-47, K.Williams 12-45, York 10-30, D.Anderson 2-17, Wilson 8-9.
Passing—Utah State, Keeton 31-40-0-314. Utah, Wilson 17-28-0-302.
Receiving—Utah State, Natson 9-83, Hill 7-39, Van Leeuwen 5-107, Tialavea 3-26, Swindall 3-23, Reynolds 2-29, Court 1-5, Andersen 1-2. Utah, Denham 6-113, Fitzgerald 5-79, D.Anderson 2-59, J.Murphy 2-41, Poole 1-8, York 1-2.