FRESNO, Calif. >> All the records and accolades Derek Carr earned became secondary in a sea of red at Bulldog Stadium when fans poured out of the stands to celebrate a long-awaited conference championship.
Carr threw for 404 yards and three touchdowns, and No. 24 Fresno State’s defense bounced back from a rough performance to help the Bulldogs beat Utah State 24-17 in the inaugural Mountain West title game Saturday night.
“This is a big reason why I came back,” Carr said. “I wanted to win an outright championship. Sharing a title was great. As a competitor that wasn’t enough. We wanted to come back and finish this thing right.”
Carr was far from his best against the stingy defense from Utah State (8-5), matching his career worst with two interceptions. But it was the much-maligned Fresno State defense that stepped up for a change, giving the Bulldogs (11-1) their first outright conference title since winning the Big West in 1989.
One week after being completely overmatched in a 62-52 loss to San Jose State that dashed any hopes of a BCS bid, Fresno State’s defense responded with one of its best performances of the season. The Bulldogs had eight sacks, knocked out freshman quarterback Darell Garretson and stopped three fourth-down tries.
“The performance that we put on last week against San Jose State, that’s not the defense we are,” safety Derron Smith said. “That one performance doesn’t define who we are as a defense. We knew the mistakes we made and we knew they were correctable.”
The Bulldogs didn’t allow an offensive score until the fourth quarter, one week after giving up eight touchdowns to David Fales and the Spartans. Fresno State then came up with two late stops to seal the win: Ejiro Ederaine sacked Craig Harrison on fourth-and-7 from the Utah State 41 with 2:47 to play, and Dalen Jones intercepted a pass from Harrison at the Bulldogs 17 with 58 seconds left.
This defensive performance came a week too late to get Fresno State into the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, the Bulldogs are headed to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they could take on Southern California.
“If your only goal is to go to the BCS, why show up and play?” coach Tim DeRuyter said.
The Aggies appear headed to the Poinsettia Bowl.
Carr broke older brother David’s single-season school record for touchdown passes (46) and yards passing (4,839) in his final game at Bulldog Stadium. With two more TD passes in the bowl game, Carr will be the fifth quarterback in FBS history to reach 50 in a season. He also needs 125 yards to reach 5,000 on the season.
The Aggies came into the game as the top defense in the conference and played that way, forcing a pair of fumbles in the first half and intercepting Carr twice in the third quarter. The defense even provided the first score for Utah State on Jake Doughty’s 86-yard fumble return in the closing seconds of the half.
But an offense missing starting quarterback Chuckie Keaton, running back Joe Hill and tight end D.J. Tialavea to season-ending injuries couldn’t take advantage.
“When things aren’t really going our way, we’re not a team that points fingers at each other,” said safety Matt Suite, who had two interceptions. “We say, ‘Let’s go, I have your back.'”
The Aggies went three-and-out after Carr’s first interception and then were stopped on fourth-and-1 following the second when Joey DeMartino was stuffed for no gain.
Carr then drove the Bulldogs down the field, converting a fourth-and-10 with a 20-yard pass to Isaiah Burse before finding Davante Adams for a 3-yard TD pass to make it 24-7. That was Adams’ 23rd TD catch of the season.
After Garretson was knocked out on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Jones early in the fourth quarter, receiver Bruce Natson took a direct snap and ran 10 yards for a score.
Utah State recovered the ensuing onside kick, leading to a field goal by Nick Diaz that made it 24-17 with 9 minutes to play. But the Aggies couldn’t get another score.
“We’ve just got a lot of fighters, kids who continue to play,” coach Matt Wells said. “There’s never any quit. We don’t have to say don’t quit, keep fighting. They do it anyway.”
After a surprisingly sluggish start on offense with just one field goal in the first quarter, Fresno State seemed to take control in the second. Carr threw TD passes to Marcel Jensen and Burse, and the defense harassed Garretson with four sacks to build a 17-0 lead.
After Diaz missed a 42-yard field goal for Utah State in the final minute of the half, Carr drove the Bulldogs down to the 11 and in position for another score. But Marteze Waller couldn’t handle a pitch from Carr and Doughty returned it for a score that cut Fresno State’s lead to 17-7 at halftime.