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3 takeaways from Utah State’s 51-31 win over Hawaii

The Aggies handled the Warriors and improved to 6-2 on the year, becoming bowl eligible while maintaining their hold on first place in their division.

Utah State running back Elelyon Noa (34) celebrates after his touchdown against Hawaii during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

Entering Saturday’s game against Hawaii, Utah State was a win away from becoming bowl eligible.

Consider that goal — thought by many across the country as a near impossibility for USU before the season — accomplished.

The Aggies defeated the Warriors 51-31 and improved to 6-2 on the season, 4-1 in Mountain West Conference play.

Quarterback Logan Bonner tied his career-high for touchdowns thrown in a game with four on an afternoon when he threw for 361 yards on 21 of 30 passes.

Wide receiver Deven Thompkins racked up 176 receiving yards and officially joined an exclusive group at Utah State with over 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

The Aggies’ defense forced three turnovers, wide receiver Brandon Bowling returned an onside kick for a touchdown and oh, Connor Coles added three field goals for good measure.

Not much went wrong for the Aggies against the Warriors, and as a result, Utah State walked away with another win and remains the favorite to win the Mountain division and play for the Mountain West Conference championship.

“I was excited with how the guys came out today and got the win,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “You just don’t take anything for granted at this point with your opponent or their record. After watching those guys beat Fresno (State), you knew what they were capable of. We didn’t want that to be us today. Didn’t want to have any letdown, coming off of an emotional game last week. Our guys did a good job of responding.

“We challenged them several times this week, even as often as yesterday, about our focus. I was concerned about that going in and last night at dinner we hit them up again and they responded really, really well. We did some really silly things that made things a little more interesting than it should have been, but at the same time, we did some big things to respond when we needed to. We held a team down who really runs the ball well. We were able to control that and created some turnovers.

“We had a lot of good and still some bad, but at the end of the day we won the game and are bowl eligible and I’m proud of our guys and what they are doing. We took the next step we needed to take to control our destiny of where we want to be.”

Here are three takeaways from Utah State’s victory over Hawaii.

The offensive line (mostly) came to play

There were plenty of positives from Utah State’s performance, but given recent history, no bright spot was more encouraging than that provided by the Aggies’ offensive line.

After Utah State’s win over Colorado State, no single group received as much criticism as the O-line, and it was largely justified. USU could not protect Bonner at all against the Rams and gave up eight sacks, to say nothing of additional pressure.

Against the Warriors, however, Utah State was much improved up front. Bonner still faced plenty of pressure, but Hawaii only recorded a single sack in the game and Bonner had enough time to have his best overall performance as an Aggie.

Additionally, USU was able to run the ball effectively for much of the game. Elelyon Noa rushed for a career-high 111 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

Utah State must get better up front if it is to actually contend for a MW title this season, but on a week-to-week basis, the improvement shown by the offensive line was nothing if not encouraging.

Bonner finally had a breakout performance

Speaking of Bonner, for really the first time this season, he looked similar to the quarterback that he was earlier in his college career at Arkansas State.

Through much of the season entering Saturday, Bonner seemed to still be acclimating to his team in Logan — injuries in the offseason didn’t help — but against Hawaii, he looked comfortable and at ease.

Bonner threw multiple touchdown passes of 40-plus yards — one to Justin McGriff, another to Derek Wright — showing off a deep ball that had been lacking in his repertoire.

Bonner was accurate, completing 70% of his passes, and when the game appeared to be getting away from Utah State in the third quarter, he came back in and settled the Aggies down.

“The guys wanted to go out and be consistent and really execute the game plan,” Bonner said. “We had a really good plan and our guys gave me all the time to throw. The guys did great up front and the wide outs did great making plays. We just need to keep improving.”

Bonner still has a tendency to throw 50-50 balls on occasion and probably takes more hits than Anderson would like, but he seems to be coming into his own as the Aggies’ quarterback.

Bend but don’t break defense was better than ever

Utah State’s defense has had its fair share of struggles this year, but the unit has started to come on in recent weeks.

After the win over Colorado State, a game in which the Aggies held the Rams to only 24 points, Anderson spoke at length about how total yards given up is no longer a good way to determine the quality of a defense.

For him, it is all about points scored and turnovers forced.

The Aggies gave up 31 points against Hawaii, but they forced three key turnovers — two fumbles and an interception. Additionally, the USU defense allowed the Warriors to score only three touchdowns in the game (one Hawaii score was a defensive touchdown, another a field goal).

Of the 13 possessions Hawaii had Saturday, three ended in turnover and another two ended on downs, while four more ended with punts.

Defensive end/linebacker Byron Vaughns was a standout with two sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pass deflection that led to an interception.

“When I was hurt, I wasn’t worried about people seeing my potential, but I wanted to be a positive role model on the sideline,” Vaughns said. “I know people look at me as a team leader on defense, so when I was hurt, I wanted people to see that positive influence on the team. Now that I’m back, people can see the kind of impact I have on the team. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Vaughns wasn’t alone, but his performance and the defense on the whole shows a unit that is starting to figure things out as the season goes on. Good news for Utah State’s aspirations.