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December 5, 2013

Mountain West championship game preview

This Saturday marks the inaugural Mountain West Championship game and it features exactly half of the teams picked by the pundits during the pre-season. Though not undefeated as planned, the Bulldogs will represent the West division. But the Mountain will not be represented by Boise State as so many predicted. The Mountain division belongs to the Utah State Aggies and their first-year head coach Matt Wells.

Wells guided the Aggies to a 7-1 conference record and an 8-4 record overall. He did this in his first year and while being the 11th-youngest coach at the FBS level. This also happened to be the Aggies' first season in the Mountain West. Oh, did we mention that Wells did this without his star quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who went down with a torn ACL and MCL. Safe to say this Aggie squad has battled through enormous adversity and will not be intimidated by Fresno State's high-flying offense.

The Bulldogs will enter the contest as the West division representative. The Bulldogs are looking for their second consecutive conference championship and their first since 1991, when they played in the Big West. It's been a little while since the Bulldogs have been able to claim sole possession of first place. Saturday presents a golden opportunity for the Bulldogs to stake their claim as the conference's new No. 1.

Fresno State is still reeling from a crushing defeat that knocked them from BCS contention, but head coach Tim DeRuyter is confident the Bulldogs will be ready to go at home. DeRuyter recognizes the value of being able to right the ship before the season ends. The fact that the Bulldogs get to do this at home is a quite a big deal.

Quarterback Derek Carr has been outstanding at home. Carr has thrown 26 touchdowns against only one interception at Bulldog Stadium. He's also averaging 423.7 yards per game. The Bulldogs have also won 12-straight games at home. The last time Carr faced the Aggies at home, he threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.

The all-time series between the two teams is tilted in Fresno's favor, but the Aggies have their fair share of victories. The Aggies will turn to a defense that only allowed 16.8 points per game. The Aggies will match the nation's 11th-ranked defense against Fresno's fourth-ranked scoring offense. One of these juggernauts has to give.

The Aggies are also the only team in the nation with interceptions by all four starting linebackers. They have intercepted 14 passes in their last eight games. As a matter of fact, only two running backs have rushed for over 100 yards against the Aggies this season. The Utah State defense isn't just good, it's intimidating.

Utah State also brings a powerful rushing attack, which has been the backbone of this offense since Keeton went down. The Aggies average over 190 yards rushing and over 430 yards of total offense per game. Senior running back Joey DeMartino has hit the century mark in four of his last five outings with the team. Of his 13 career rushing touchdowns, 12 have come this season.

Despite the fact that the Aggie lost one of their biggest play-makers, Utah State has had 57 plays in 2013 of 20 yards or more. They also know how to jump out to quick leads. The Aggies have led at halftime in 22-of-27 games dating back to 2011. They are 19-3 when leading at the half.

The Bulldogs are also fine with explosive. In their last seven games, Fresno has averaged over 49 points and 630 yards of offense. They had a mind-numbing 822 yards of total offense two weeks ago against New Mexico and followed that up with a 646-yard performance in last week's loss at San Jose State.

The Bulldogs also lead the entire nation in passing yards per game (410.3), are second in total offense (580.6), third in plays per game (85.5), and are fourth in scoring (47.3). The Bulldog offense is as loaded and prolific as any offense you'll see and the Aggies are certainly going to be tested.

The Bulldogs are going to have to rely on their offensive line, which has only allowed eight sacks all season, to give Carr plenty of time to throw. The Aggie defense is very capable of frustrating high-flying offenses, having beaten down San Jose by a score of 40-12. The Aggies did that with Chuckie Keeton, but it's not like San Jose didn't have David Fales back there running their offense. That was solid defensive work.

There's no guarantee that Josh Harper or Jamal Ellis, both injured last week, will be available on Saturday. Cornerback L.J. Jones has missed the last four games with an injury, but is also listed as questionable.

The Bulldogs have been preaching that a conference championship was always the goal this season and now they get a chance to prove it on Saturday. The home crowd and blackout uniforms should provide the Bulldogs with all the energy they need to be emotionally up for this game. Utah State isn't a team that's going to think twice about whether or not Fresno State is really in the game. They will take their shots when they are given to them and Fresno State could once again find themselves shell-shocked.

But none of that should happen. It shouldn't happen because there's no way Carr is going to want his legendary career defined by what didn't happen at the end of it because of apathy. Carr is not the type of leader to allow the Bulldogs to be anything less than prepared for this game.

Expect the Bulldogs to come out and feed off the energy of the crowd. Look for them to take a few chances early to get the crowd and the team fully into it. Nothing shakes off the cobwebs of a bad loss like a couple big plays. The Bulldogs are more than capable of a couple and they will need more than a couple if they hope to topple the Aggies on Saturday.

The Aggies are a solid team overall, but there's a reason they struggled with more talented squads. They're not as deep as the Bulldogs going from position to position. Injuries will hurt you in championship games and this is the type of game where you're going to need all hands on deck. The Bulldogs have a few injuries of their own, but they still have Derek Carr and that's reason enough to think they will find a way to win at home.

Prediction: Fresno - 41, Utah State - 24

Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the 2013 Fresno State Bulldog season.

Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.


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