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Logan • Utah State is once again a winning team.
For the first time since falling to BYU, the Aggies (5-4, 4-1) crossed over to the north side of the .500 mark. In years past, that alone would've meant success. This year, it's still south of Utah State's expectations.
"There's pressure every week," coach Matt Wells said. "The more you win, the more you create."
The new standard competing for conference championships is what the Aggies hope to continue to fight for as they take on UNLV on Saturday in Sam Boyd Stadium. Although they are behind Boise State, they're still fighting to prove they belong among the conference elite.
A quick look at the Aggies' record shows they still need to make that case. Of Utah State's wins, they've beaten only one team, San Jose State, that has a winning record in the Mountain West. Hawaii, Air Force and New Mexico combined have no conference wins at all.
That won't be the case this weekend. The Rebels (5-4, 3-2) have surpassed most preseason expectations already by getting a win away from bowl eligibility. Like the Aggies, they're not satisfied.
Saturday night's ESPNU-televised contest will be a battle of tactics, and also a battle of will.
"Right now we're playing for the same thing as far as bowl eligibility, but we're playing for the Mountain West race, too," Wells said. "You never know what's going to happen here in a few weeks. It will be a big game Saturday. They'll be fired up and it will be a home game for them. I'm sure they'll want to get the taste out of their mouth from last week."
Last week, UNLV was trumped by the Spartans team that Utah State rolled. The Rebels gave up yards early, especially to San Jose State's run game which hadn't been much of a strength early on this year.
But the Aggies are treading lightly. Although Utah State stomped out UNLV last season 35-13, both teams have gone through many changes since then. The quarterback position might be the most pronounced: As the Aggies lost their star quarterback, UNLV found one in Caleb Herring, who has led one of the Mountain West's most balanced offenses this year.
"The guy last year was a big pocket-passer and the guy they have now is a lot more athletic," linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. "He can move around and make plays with his feet as well as his arm."
Utah State's defense will also be on the watch for Herring's playmakers who make the offense run smoothly around him. Tim Cornett, the program's all-time rushing leader, and Devante Davis, a tall, athletic touchdown machine at receiver, will be some of the explosive weapons the Aggies' defense must account for.
Recent successes scoring a combined 92 points against Hawaii and New Mexico have given Utah State confidence it can compete offensively even without the four starters who have been lost for the year. The Aggies will have an edge running the ball with a veteran line and senior running back Joey DeMartino: The Rebels are ranked No. 118 against the run, allowing 244.7 yards on the ground per contest.
But quarterback Darrell Garretson will have to be on his toes. UNLV's passing defense is the second-best in the conference behind Utah State, and they boast a number of good athletes up front led by hulking defensive lineman Tyler Gaston.
"There's a lot of running in the game plan," offensive lineman Kevin Whimpey said. "They have a lot of good athletes, so we're going to have to push them off the ball."
Utah State at UNLV
O At Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Kickoff • Saturday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 1280 AM
Records • Utah State 5-4, 4-1; UNLV 5-4, 3-2
Series history • USU leads 13-7
Last meeting • USU 35, UNLV 13 (Sept. 29, 2012)
About the Aggies • After allowing 10 points in each of its last two games, Utah State has improved to the No. 16 scoring defense and total defense in the country. … The Aggies are No. 17 in turnover margin with a plus-seven mark that leads the conference.
About the Rebels • Lead opponents in second-half scoring by a 143-108 margin this season. … Running back Tim Cornett leads UNLV in all-time rushing yards (3,304 yards), and despite also leading the school in carries, he has only lost one fumble in his career.