Utah State football report card: The Aggies did what they do best, made a win stressful
Utah State stands in sole possession of first place in their division after beating the Rams, but it wasn’t exactly pretty.
It is Oct. 23 and the Utah State Aggies are in first place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference.
Two months ago, that statement would have been deemed highly unlikely, if not crazy, and yet that is exactly where things stand after the Aggies defeated the visiting Colorado State Rams on Friday night at Maverik Stadium.
Utah State didn’t make it easy, as has been their modus operandi this season, but at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, the Aggies are a game away from bowl eligibility a year after they won only one game (albeit in a shortened season).
The big picture is fantastic for Utah State football right now. The grades from the win over Colorado State, however, are a little more up and down.
Here’s how the Aggies graded out in their win over the Rams.
If this grade could be broken down into halves or even quarters, Utah State would have some pretty favorable marks.
The Aggies were dynamic on offense in the second quarter, for instance, scoring 20 of their 26 points. Quarterback Logan Bonner found wide receiver Derek Wright for a pair of touchdowns receptions, Deven Thompkins was involved, and the run game was passable.
Looking solely at final game statistics, things aren’t too bad either. The Aggies finished the game with 344 yards of total offense. Not great, but not awful. Bonner threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns, completing 17 of 31 passes, good for a QBR rating of 132.8. Elelyon Noa, meanwhile, assumed the job of primary running back and nearly rushed for 100 yards, coming just short with 97 yards on 26 carries.
While the Aggies were 4 of 18 on third down (no one is pretending that is a good conversion rate) they were perfect on fourth-down conversions, completing all three of their attempts, which were desperately needed.
Thompkins had yet another 100-yard receiving performance, hauling in six passes for 104 yards. Wright had only two catches, but both found the end zone, including a 38-yarder. Tight end Carson Terrell had a 20-yard reception, a season long for him, and running back Pailate Makakona ran six times for a career-best 29 yards.
That is about where the good, or even the mediocre, ends though.
Outside of the second quarter, Utah State’s offense struggled mightily. The Aggies scored only six points in the second half, via field goals, and were shut out in the first quarter.
Bonner was bruised, battered and nearly broken by the end of the night after being sacked eight times. The Aggies gave up 13 tackles for loss, and averaged a measly 2.3 yards per rush.
USU’s offensive line was limited by injuries, but nonetheless was completely dominated by Colorado State’s defensive front.
Bonner wasn’t blameless, either. He completed only 41% of his passes and threw an interception. The Aggies had 14 possessions in the game and half of them ended in a punt or a turnover. Despite possessing the ball for 33 minutes, compared to CSU’s 26 minutes, Utah State actually found the end zone fewer times (Colorado State scored three touchdowns, Utah State just two).
After the game, Utah State coach Blake Anderson admitted he would have liked to have seen more points put on the board, but was hard pressed to be too critical given his team won the game.
“What a game,” Anderson said. “Really good football team. Very well-built football team, physical. Our guys accepted the challenge and did a lot of really good things... I’d have loved to see us get some more points on the board there late and put this thing out of reach so it didn’t have to be quite so entertaining at the end, but great team win against a really good football team. I’m proud of our guys. They’re killing me, beyond stressful, but making me beyond proud as well.”
Through the first half of the season, Utah State’s defense was the weak point for the Aggies. Even after the win over Colorado State, USU is the 10th-ranked team in the MW in scoring defense, 11th-ranked in total defense, 12th-ranked (last in the conference) in run defense and ninth-ranked in pass defense.
Against the Rams, though, those rankings were thrown out. Not because the Aggies became a lockdown defensive unit, but because they played arguably their best and most complete game of the season.
Utah State shut Colorado State out in the both the first and third quarters, forced multiple turnovers (the Aggies forced two fumbles but recovered one and also recorded an interception) and limited the Rams on third down (CSU converted 6 of 13 tries).
While Colorado State racked up 472 yards of total offense, only 295 yards actually led to a score. The Rams punted, turned over the ball or simply ran out of time on seven of their 13 possessions.
Individually, safety Shaq Bond and linebacker Justin Rice finished with double-digit tackles to lead Utah State (Bond had 11, while Rice had 10, including a tackle for loss), which also benefited from strong performances by defensive tackle Marcus Moore (seven tackles), safeties Hunter Reynolds (six tackles) and Ajani Carter (an interception), among others.
It wasn’t all great, of course. Utah State gave up 4.4 yards per run and only sacked CSU quarterback Todd Centeio once all night. The Aggies also only had four tackles for loss, compared to CSU’s 13, proving largely incapable of pressuring the quarterback.
And when the game was on the line, Utah State could do nothing to slow down the Rams’ offense. Colorado State scored twice over its final three possessions and had a chance to win the game with a late field goal (more on that in a bit).
CSU ran 19 plays in the final quarter, racking up 203 yards and 10 points.
Still, Utah State’s defense did just enough to help the team walk away with the win.
This is where Utah State truly shined. For years now, the Aggies have had a strong special teams, whether it be in the return game or the kicking game.
Against the Rams Friday night, it was a complete showing.
Kicker Connor Coles won the game for the Utah State, scoring 14 points and going 4-for-4 on field attempts, after missing three field goals the week before. Coles was the only Aggie to score in the second half and all of his kicks were needed.
“I feel really good,” Coles said. “I’m extremely grateful to my coaches and my teammates for sticking with me through last week. There was nobody telling me how bad I did against UNLV. I think they knew that I knew I needed to do better. They trust me that I would be better and I did everything I could this week to not let the team down again. I’m really happy I was able to perform and help us win this game.”
Coles credited his teammates with his bounce-back performance.
“A big part of it is the support of my teammates to help put it behind me,” he said. “I just focus on what matters now because hanging your head and getting angry at yourself for past games isn’t going to help you win the next one. I knew what I did wrong and I made the adjustments I needed to and felt confident going into this game based on my preparation during this week of practice.”
It wasn’t just Coles who had a strong special teams outing. Thompkins was dynamic in the kick return game (CSU avoided kicking to Savon Scarver) and finished with 91 return yards, an average of 30 yards per return.
Punter Stephen Kotsanlee held his own against arguably the nation’s best punter in CSU’s Ryan Stonehouse. Kotsanlee averaged 43.2 yards per punt, with six downed inside the 20-yard line.
Throw in the fact that the Aggies didn’t suffer any sort of meltdown similar to the one that cost Colorado State the game, and it was a great day for special teams.
Instead of spiking it on first down and stopping the clock, Colorado State rushed their field goal unit onto the field.— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 23, 2021
With the clock running, they then missed the potential game-winning field goal. Utah State wins the game. pic.twitter.com/vw3sXclgDP