FRESNO, Calif. – Fresno State spent all season professing that the team's top goal was winning the Mountain West amid talk of a possible BCS bowl bid.
Whether that was talk or truth will be put to the test Saturday when the 24th-ranked Bulldogs host Utah State in the inaugural Mountain West championship game.
With Fresno State's BCS dreams dying in an upset loss at San Jose State last week, the Bulldogs (10-1, 7-1) only have the conference title to play for when they host the Aggies (8-4, 7-1).
"The greatest thing was that was not the end of our season," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "Our number one goal in the program is to win the Mountain West championship and we get a chance to do that in our stadium. Our guys are really excited about that."
DeRuyter said it took a few days for the players to get over the heartbreak of the 62-52 loss at San Jose State last week when the defense was picked apart by David Fales, while Derek Carr and the Bulldogs' high-powered offense sputtered in the second half.
DeRuyter said the team had that "pep in their step" back when practice started Monday for the championship game.
"We're disappointed bitterly with how we played last Friday," DeRuyter said. "But we have an opportunity to show ourselves and others that's not who we are."
While Fresno State was expected to be in this game, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Utah State got the other spot after starting the season 3-4 and losing star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to injury.
But the Aggies recovered with freshman Darrell Garretson at the helm and won their final five games and got into the title game thanks to San Diego State's win over Boise State two weeks ago.
"Not a lot of people outside this complex anytime during the year thought we'd be playing in this game," coach Matt Wells said.
Here are five things to watch when Utah State visits Fresno State:
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: The most anticipated matchup in this game will be between Utah State's defense, which has allowed the seventh fewest points in the country (16.8 ppg), and Fresno State and the fourth-highest scoring offense (47.3 ppg). The Aggies will need to figure out a way to slow down Carr and his talented receivers, led by Davante Adams, who leads the nation with 22 TD passes. "I don't think they're going to score 70 on us, but I don't think we're going to shut them out either," Aggies linebacker Zach Vigil said.
EXPERIENCE SPECTRUM: The two quarterbacks are at opposite ends of the experience spectrum with Carr finishing up a record-setting career while Garretson is just starting his own. While Carr has more talent, bigger numbers and an NFL future ahead of him, Garretson hasn't lost yet as a starter, winning all five games he started since Keeton's injury. He has thrown eight TD passes and one interception in that span. "He had to play efficiently and within the system and not turn the ball over," Wells said. "He's done that for five straight weeks. If he does it again Saturday, we have a chance to win."
DESPICABLE DEFENSE: The biggest reason Fresno State won't be going to a BCS bowl is because the defense completely fell apart against San Jose State. The Bulldogs allowed David Fales to throw six TD passes in the first half and to throw for a Mountain West-record 547 yards for the game. In all, Fresno State allowed 736 yards of offense in the loss.
COACHING BUDDIES: Wells and DeRuyter have a long history, having spent three years together as assistants at Navy. Now together as head coaches in the same conference, the two noted happily before the season that they wouldn't play each other the next two years because they weren't in the same division. Then they both happened to make it to the championship game. "We always teased each other that for the next two years we were OK, we could share secrets because we weren't going to play each other," Wells said. "I guess we both never thought it would really happen just because of the odds."
BOWL DESTINATION: Unlike most conference championships which have a specific bowl as a prize for the winner, the Mountain West leaves the choice to its bowl partners. The Las Vegas Bowl has first choice of a Mountain West team followed by the Poinsettia Bowl. USC is a possible Las Vegas Bowl pick and the Trojans already played the Aggies this season, meaning the bowl could choose to avoid a rematch even if Utah State wins Saturday.