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Utah State weathers fourth-quarter rally attempt, escapes with wild 23-17 win over San Diego State

The Aggies defeated the Aztecs for the first time since 1967, a 52-year drought.

Utah State’s Jaylen Warren is picked up by teammates after he scored a touchdown against San Diego State during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Through the first seven minutes and 45 seconds of Saturday night’s Mountain West Conference opener against San Diego State, things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Utah State Aggies.

The Aztecs kicked off the game with a seven-minute scoring drive that, in addition to netting the hosts a field goal, also kept Jordan Love and the Aggies offense off the field.

When Utah State finally did get possession, it ended almost as quickly as it began, with an unspectacular three-and-out.

At that point, with the Aggies trailing 3-0 and San Diego State driving down the field again, a Utah State win, just the second in the all-time series, seemed a remote possibility.

For the next two and a half quarters, however, Utah State couldn’t have asked for a better showing.

Following a pick-six by safety Shaq Bond, the Aggies outscored the Aztecs 20-3 in the first half, 23-3 through the end of the third quarter.

It seemed as though Utah State would cruise, relatively unchallenged, to victory.

And yet, in the final quarter it was all San Diego State.

The Aztecs scored 14 unanswered points and pulled with a touchdown and made extra point of the victory.

It was just that kind of game at SDCCU Stadium Saturday night, one filled with highs, lows and everything in between.

It ended on a high note for Utah State, though, as the Aggies (2-1, 1-0) held off the Aztecs’ (3-1, 0-1) rally attempt and walked away with a 23-17 victory.

“It was a great opportunity to come in against a good, possibly great team, and get a win on the road,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen told 1280 the Zone postgame. “When we had to make a play at the very end we found a way. We made the one we had to make to win the game. We will enjoy this victory. It hasn’t happened for a while.”

The game-winning play came on a fourth down with just under a minute remaining, when Utah State defensive ends Nick Heninger and Justus Te’i chased San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew from the Aztecs’ 40-yard line all the way back to the hosts’ 2-yard line.

When Te’i brought Agnew down, just outside the end zone — Agnew flipped the ball away in an attempt to avoid a potential safety — he ended the Aztecs’ potential game-winning drive and, ultimately, the game.

“I don’t know where (Agnew) was going, but we found a way to get him,” Andersen said. “That was great to see. In a game like that, the best way to finish is to not let them throw it and that is what we did.”

The win was the first by Utah State over San Diego State since 1967, and it was one the Aggies prepared long and hard for.

“We prepared the right way,” said wide receiver Savon Scarver, the team’s leading receiver with five receptions for 90 yards. “We had a lot of time to prepare and we came out here and executed.”

That preparation, over the course of two weeks thanks to an early season bye, helped Utah State maintain its composure late, even as a once-convincing lead dwindled away.

“We just told each other keep our heads up,” Bond said. “We still winning. Just remember that. We still winning. After that, it was all grit. Dig deep down inside and finish out the game.”

Bond was the defensive standout on the unit that did indeed finish out the game for Utah State. In addition to his pick-six, the safety had eight tackles, one and a half for loss and a pass breakup.

Linebackers David Woodward and Kevin Meitzenheimer, meanwhile, had a team-best and second-best 13 and 12 tackles, respectively.

On offense, quarterback Jordan Love completed 30 passes for 397 yards, while Jaylen Warren rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

After the slow start, Love was his regular self, effective and timely in his success on the field.

“He is poised and confident and his team believes in him,” Andersen said. “He makes the throws when he needs to. He’s got guys around him that believe in him.”

Many of those came through for Love, such as Scarver, Siaosi Mariner (seven catches for 74 yards), Carson Terrell (four catches for 33 yards) and Warren (three catches for 40 yards).

Placekicker Dominik Eberle drilled three field goals for the Aggies as well, but he missed a 42-yarder late, a kick that would have sealed the win.

Instead, when it sailed wide right, the Aztecs’ rally remained alive.

That is, until Heninger and Te’i chased Agnew to Te’i’s hometown of Oceanside.

“It is a tremendous victory,” said Andersen. “When you beat a Rocky Long team, here at San Diego State, against these guys, that is a tremendous victory. We got it, we won the game and I am so excited for Aggies nation.”