When Utah State lost quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a season-ending knee injury against BYU on Oct. 4, the Aggies could have folded. Keeton had more than 1,600 total yards and 20 touchdowns in five-plus games to start the year. His injury could have been devastating. Just look at conference rival Boise State, which has gone just 2-2 in the four full games since losing quarterback Joe Southwick to a broken ankle.
Instead, after a loss in their first game without Keeton, the Aggies have won four straight. Utah State sits at 7-4 and 6-1 in the Mountain West. With a win over Wyoming on Saturday, the Aggies will play Fresno State in the conference championship game. It's a testament to first-year head coach Matt Wells that the Aggies have stuck together so well, considering the impact Keeton made on the field.
"This program is not about me," Wells said during his weekly press conference Monday. "It's not about (former coach) Gary (Andersen), it's not about Chuckie (Keeton), it's not about Tyler (Larsen). It's about Aggie football. If something happened to me this week, they'd kick it off Saturday. It would be fine. It's not about one individual. This is a program that continues to move forward. It's important that we continue to reach for the goals we set out. When I sit here and say these are our goals and what we're working for and you get really close to obtaining that, yeah, that's everything."
Quarterback Darrell Garretson has kept the Aggies in the hunt. The freshman has thrown just one interception during Utah State's winning streak. He threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-10 win over Hawaii on Nov. 2. It wasn't realistic to think Utah State would be able to replace Keeton's 35 touchdowns and close to 4,000 yards from a year ago. Garretson isn't a dual threat like Keeton, but the Chandler (Ariz.) High School product hasn't slowed the Aggies down.
That said, Wells has gotten production from other areas. Running back Joey DeMartino has rushed for 450 yards during the past four games, and the team's defense has stepped up as well. Utah State has allowed just 11 points per game during its win streak and shut out Colorado State last Saturday. The Aggies held running back Kapri Bibbs, who entered with more than 1,400 yards, to just 54 yards on three yards per carry.
Fresno State and Derek Carr's offensive attack would be a huge challenge if Utah State makes the title game, but reaching that point without their best player would be quite an accomplishment for the Aggies.
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• Buffalo LB Khalil Mack: After forcing three fumbles against Miami (Ohio) on Tuesday, the Bulls' senior holds the NCAA career record with 16. He now has 82 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, three interceptions and two touchdowns this year and is well on his way to winning MAC defensive player of the year. Buffalo is 8-3 this season and plays Bowling Green on Friday for a chance to represent the MAC East against Northern Illinois in the conference championship.
• Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch: With 363 total yards (161 yards rushing) and three scores in a 35-17 win over Toledo, Lynch guided the Huskies to their fourth straight MAC championship game berth. After the win, NIU coach Rod Carey said, "If he’s not in the Heisman conversation, I don’t know who should be in the country.” Lynch now has 2,418 passing yards, 1,434 rushing yards and 38 total touchdowns.
• East Carolina: With the Pirates' 42-28 win over N.C. State on Saturday, ECU has two wins over ACC teams from the state of North Carolina. Quarterback Shane Carden accounted for five scores in the victory and has 41 total touchdowns this year. It’s a shame ECU (9-2, 6-1 Conference USA) can’t play Wake Forest and Duke and try for the clean sweep through the state. But the Pirates will have a nice consolation prize: beat Marshall this Saturday and East Carolina is in the conference title game.
Bonus one up – Georgia Southern: We're fans of the underdog here, and Georgia Southern was the first FCS team to ever beat Florida - and at the Swamp, no less. The Eagles did it without a single passing yard. Although most of the attention has gone to Florida coach Will Muschamp and his future with the Gators, the winning team deserves credit for coming in prepared and picking up a road win against a power conference foe.
• UTSA: Not that the Roadrunners belong in the three down category per se, but they're in a tough spot entering the final week of the season. Because UTSA is still reclassifying to the FBS level, the team is not bowl eligible. So even though the Roadrunners have six wins and are a win and a Rice loss away from playing in the C-USA title game, they can only play in a bowl game if there aren't enough bowl-eligible teams (there are 69 eligible currently and 70 spots total) or a bowl committee decides to pick the Roadrunners over another school. That said, this isn't a bad conversation to be having, even if Texas-San Antonio stays home. All it means is it's ahead of schedule.
• San Jose State: The Spartans made the right play to let Navy score near the end of regulation, but SJSU coach Ron Caragher probably would have liked his defense to keep Navy out of the end zone at least once in the three overtime periods. San Jose has now dropped three straight after starting the season 5-3 and needs a win over undefeated Fresno State to become bowl eligible.
RICKMAN: Between the Hashes: The Weather Channel and sad pandas win Week 13 • Georgia State: It almost happened. The Panthers almost picked up their first win of the season. But Arkansas State and its frightening fever dream of a logo snatched victory right out from under Georgia State (0-11). Unless the Panthers can find a way to beat South Alabama on Saturday, they'll have to wait until next year to win their first Sun Belt (and FBS) game.