Utah State football report card: The Aggies just had their best performance of the season
Utah State executed well in all three phases against Hawaii and is now the clear frontrunner in the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain division.
It is official, the 2021 Utah State Aggies have returned the program back to where it belongs, aka the postseason.
With the win over Hawaii Saturday in Logan, Utah State is now 6-2 this season (4-1 in Mountain West Conference play) and bowl eligible for the ninth time in the last 11 years.
There was a time when making a bowl game was a rarity for the Aggies, but that era has long since past. The dismal 2020 season was the aberration, this year a return to the norm.
That doesn’t mean that what the Aggies have done under new head coach Blake Anderson should be taken for granted, though. Utah State has exceeded practically every expectation placed on the program before the season started.
Better yet, the Aggies seem to be getting better and better as the season goes on. That was certainly the case against Hawaii, as Utah State put together arguably its most complete game of the season.
Here’s how the Aggies graded out in their win over the Warriors.
Any game in which an offense racks up over 500 yards, scores 50-plus points and converts on 3rd down at a rate better than 60% has to be considered a successful showing.
It went deeper than that for Utah State, though. The Aggies were successful doing just about everything on offense against Hawaii.
Quarterback Logan Bonner tied his career high with four touchdown passes, the second time he has throw for that many scores at USU (it was the fifth time he has done that in his college football career). He threw for 361 yards, completed 70% of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 215.1
Wide receiver Deven Thompkins had seven receptions for 176 yards. He has now had 100-plus receiving yards in six games this season.
Running back Elelyon Noa had his first-career 100-yard rushing game (he carried the ball 23 times for 111 yards and a touchdown).
Wide receiver Justin McGriff had a breakout performance, catching a career-long 45-yard touchdown pass. Fellow receiver Derek Wright continued his strong play with a 46-yard touchdown reception.
Tight end Carson Terrell had a touchdown reception (only the fourth of his career), as did wide receiver Brandon Bowling.
Utah State’s much-maligned offensive line had a solid game, too, all things considered. The Aggies allowed only a single sack and five quarterback hurries. That second number sounds bad, but the week before those hurries were sacks (Colorado State had eight sacks against USU and not a single hurry).
Utah State definitely wasn’t perfect. The Aggies turned the ball over twice (one of those turnovers was returned for a touchdown), Hawaii still managed 11 tackles for loss and five of Utah State’s 13 possessions ended poorly, with either a turnover, turnover on downs or punt.
Overall, though, the Aggies were more productive and dynamic on offense than they had been at any point this season.
“I was excited with how the guys came out today and got the win,” Anderson said. “... 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.”
For a significant portion of the season, Utah State’s defense was the team’s weak spot. There were some games that the Aggies played well in, but by and large, defense was a struggle.
To that point, and even after the showing against the Warriors, Utah State ranks 10th in the MW in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense, while ranking 11th in rush defense.
For Anderson and company, those stats don’t tell the whole story, though. Anderson believes in the modern era of football that yards are going to come. What is most important is limiting scores and forcing turnovers.
Utah State did that, mostly, against Hawaii, and earned praise as a result.
“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,” Anderson said. “We held a team down who really runs the ball well. We were able to control that and created some turnovers.”
Utah State limited Hawaii, which entered the game with the third-best rushing offense in the MW, to 12 total rushing yards (keep in mind in college football, sack yardage is counted in rushing totals). Warriors running back Dedrick Parson ran the ball 10 times for only 30 yards, and he was the best runner Hawaii had.
Additionally, Utah State forced three Hawaii turnovers, two interceptions and a fumble, plus the Aggies forced a turnover on downs twice.
There were plenty of individual standout performances — too many to list them all here — but linebacker Cash Gilliam and safety Monte McGary each recorded their first career interceptions, defensive tackle Poukesi Vakauta had his second fumble recovery this season and defensive end Hale Motu’apuaka had a career-high 1.5 sacks and tackles for loss.
Beyond those standouts though, were a pair of Aggies — defensive ends Byron Vaughns and Nick Heninger. The duo was disruptive all day long, and Vaughns had a career-high two sacks and three tackles for loss. He forced his first fumble of the season and tipped a pass that ended in an interception. Heninger, for his part, forced his second fumble of the season and had a tackle for loss.
Hawaii still managed to score three offensive touchdowns and threw for 348 yards, but the Aggies’ defense made those breakthoughs rare occurrences rather than the norm.
“We played poorly, we coached poorly, but you’ve got to give them credit,” Hawaii head coach Todd Graham said. “They stayed the course really well... We didn’t play well and they did.”
This section could be summed up in one statement — onside kick recovered, then returned for a touchdown.
It was that kind of day of Utah State on special teams. The Aggies were simply great in the third phase, the highlight being Brandon Bowling’s first career kick return for a touchdown.
His 45-yard return changed the game — Hawaii had all the momentum and had managed to pull within two scores — and the Aggies cruised to victory from there.
It wasn’t all Bowling, though. Kicker Connor Coles was excellent again, making all three of his field goal tries. He is now 15 of 20 on the season.
Additionally, punter Stephen Kotsanlee had both of his punts downed inside the 20 yard-line.
Thompkins and Savon Scarver were solid in the return game as well, combining for 87 yards on three returns, and the Aggies limited Hawaii to 38 total return yards on three returns.
Special teams has consistently been a strength for Utah State, and against Hawaii that was the case again.