Utah State seeks first outright conference crown in 76 years

Two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum in the Western Athletic Conference get together to close out the regular season on Saturday, as 25th-ranked Utah State entertains the dismal Idaho Vandals.

Tied for the eighth-longest win streak in the country at five games, the Aggies are in uncharted territory as a football team at the moment. Should they win this outing they will not only establish a new, single-season school record with 10 victories, surpassing both 1960 and 1961 when they had nine victories, but the program will also win its first outright league championship since turning the trick back in 1936 as a member of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Last weekend the Aggies, who are nationally ranked for the first time since 1978 when that squad started off the season 5-0, appeared to have their game against 19th-ranked Louisiana Tech well in hand, but the contest ended up going to overtime and it is then that USU pulled out the 48-41 victory. With the win the Aggies assured themselves of at least a share of the title in the WAC, which was still hard for head coach Gary Andersen to fathom.

"I don't know where to start. It has been an unbelievable journey for four years up to this point. Having it end like that is unbelievable. We have a tough-minded group of kids. We knew it was going to be a game where at any point they could come back. They have done that all year long."

As for the Vandals, the wheels fell off a long time ago now, considering they have just one win in 11 opportunities. The squad has split a pair of five-game losing streaks with a 26-18 win over New Mexico State at home back on Oct. 6 for their lone league victory as well. Along the way, head coach Robb Akey was relieved of his duties and Jason Gesser, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was installed as the head coach on an interim basis.

Unfortunately, the change at the top has don't little to influence the outcomes on the field, with the latest loss for Idaho coming at home last week against Texas-San Antonio (34-27), a school that has had a football program for just two seasons now.

Unfortunately for the Vandals, the defeat also happened to be on senior day, and Gesser wasn't too pleased with sending those players out on such a sour note.

"It's not rocket science...We gave them every opportunity and they took advantage of it. We had 12 penalties. We had three fumbles...two of them lost. Another pick. Missed assignments on defense; missed tackles."

Utah State leads the all-time series, which dates back to 1916, by a count of 19-17-2 after winning four of the last five matchups. Surprisingly enough, USU had to go to double-overtime to claim the 49-42 win in Moscow last season.

Gesser's disgust with the Vandals was most likely linked to the team's first half when they managed just three points, while giving up 20 to the visitors. Idaho made a run in the second half, closing the gap considerably, but just ran out of gas.

Slated to get the start this weekend, Taylor Davis converted 18-of-29 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns, but was also intercepted once. Mike Scott was a favorite receiver who caught 10 balls for 116 yards and two TDs in the losing effort. On the ground, the Vandals generated just 127 yards on 27 attempts.

Over on the other side, the front line for the Vandals had trouble tracking UTSA signal-caller Eric Soza who, while throwing for 232 yards, also ran for a game-high 89 yards and reached the end zone three times. The run defense this season for the Vandals has given up 204.6 ypg.

Everywhere you look there are major issues with the Vandals, from the team giving up 42.2 ppg (118th in the nation), to the offense producing a mere 16.5 ppg (119th). Even on punt returns this is a team that is ranked last among 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of just one yard per return.

For Utah State, the numbers are so much more favorable across the board, particularly on defense where the program is tops in the WAC and eighth nationally with just 16.0 ppg allowed. Because of a record-setting performance against San Jose State when the team logged a staggering 13 sacks, Utah State is also seventh in the country in that department with 3.3 per game.

Last week the defense was tested for sure by Louisiana Tech, giving up more than 600 total yards, but quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Kerwynn Williams responded in a huge way, the latter landing in the end zone on a four-yard run in overtime to give the visitors the win.

Williams, who generated 303 all-purpose yards and scored three times, may not get the press he deserves outside of the WAC, but you can be sure people in the know are well aware of his talents. Williams leads the team with 11 TDs and 1,167 rushing yards and is also first with 39 catches for 624 yards, leading to an additional four scores.

Similarly, Keeton is also playing in the shadows of the top-flight QBs in the nation, but he's got nothing to be ashamed of with his 159.1 efficiency rating, stemming from 3,011 yards and 25 TDs, against just seven interceptions.