Chuckie Keeton’s season-ending left knee injury about a month ago was a devastating blow to Utah State.
Or it appeared to be.
The fact the Aggies rebounded strong the past two games showed they are a complete football team.
And it showed they are in good hands with first-year quarterback Darell Garretson, who passed for 370 yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday’s 47-10 victory over Hawaii.
“He doesn’t look like a freshman out there,” UNLV defensive coordinator Tim Hauck said. “He looks like he’s got control of what they’re doing, and handles things very well.”
UNLV has to defend Garretson and a strong running attack when the Rebels (5-4, 3-2 Mountain West) play Utah State (5-4, 4-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Aggies average 203.2 yards rushing per game, with lead back Joey DeMartino having run for 710 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry. UNLV has been susceptible to the run, allowing a 244.7-yard average.
As Utah State’s game against Hawaii showed, however, the Rebels also must be aware of the Aggies’ passing attack. In his three games, Garretson completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 630 yards and five touchdowns, though with three interceptions.
Hauck said he didn’t view this as a pick-your-poison game in which UNLV needs go after one type of offensive plan and hope the other doesn’t beat you. The Rebels tried that singular approach against San Jose State, clamping down on the Spartans’ passing game only to get burned for 312 yards on the ground in the 34-24 loss.
“They’re going to look at our stats over the year and say, ‘Hey, we can run the ball on these guys,’ ” Hauck said of Utah State. “It’s one thing that we’re focused on and we’ve got to work on, and we’ve got to be able to at least limit what they do on the ground. They’re really good at it. Their offensive front is probably the best in the league.
“What they do up front gives the young guy (Garretson) a chance to do what he does on the back end.”
Utah State’s quarterback situation appeared to be a mess when Keeton injured his knee Oct. 4 against Brigham Young. Keeton was dangerous running and passing, and up until the time of his injury had thrown for 1,388 yards and 18 touchdowns and run for 241 yards and two scores.
After Keeton went down, Garretson and Craig Harrison shared the duties the following week against Boise State, and neither distinguished himself.
But Aggies coaches had seen enough in Garretson, who completed 9 of 14 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown but with two interceptions, to hand him the job.
Utah State didn’t ask Garretson, who was not made available this week for media interviews, to immediately carry the team in his first start Oct. 19 at New Mexico. The Aggies rushed for 337 yards in the 45-10 victory while Garretson passed for just 144 yards.
Then, however, came last weekend’s breakout performance against Hawaii.
“I thought he played well, but he’s got room for improvement,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “He’ll continue to see things. These two weeks are evidence for him of things that he’s doing right. I like the way that he’s patient in the pocket. I like the way that he’s throwing the ball five rows up in the stands when nothing is there.
“We’re going to clean up some technique stuff, a couple things from a progression standpoint for him. Hopefully he’ll make those corrections during the week and continue to see a little bit of improvement each and every week.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.