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Utah State football report card: The Aggies keep getting better as the season progresses

Utah State had its most complete performance of the year Saturday night against reigning MW champion San Jose State.

Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner (1) throws a touchdown pass past San Jose State linebacker Jordan Cobbs (44) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, San Jose, Calif.
Tony Avelar, AP

Two more games.

After more than two months of college football, the Utah State Aggies are only two wins away from earning a berth in the Mountain West Conference championship game.

Thanks to their 48-17 beatdown of San Jose State on Saturday night, the Aggies are 8-2 overall, 5-1 in conference play and are in the midst of their best season since 2018, when they went 11-2.

The 8-2 record is the program’s third best to this point in the last 43 years, behind only the 2012 and 2018 teams.

That 2018 squad, led by Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love, didn’t play for the conference championship.

After the way they dismantled the Spartans, the 2021 Aggies are not only favored to make it to the MW title game, but they now have the second-best odds to win the game, per ESPN’s FPI.

As shown by their performance against reigning conference champion San Jose State, Utah State is getting better and better as the season goes on, which means the Aggies just secured their best grades of the year.

Here’s how the Aggies graded out in their win over the Spartans.

Offense

The Aggies have been plagued by slow starts this season. That isn’t in question. Utah State has trailed by double digits in six games this year — five of those games have been on the road — all of those deficits coming in the first half.

Much of blame can be laid on the offense. For whatever reason, Utah State takes a while to get going offensively, and that was the case against the Spartans.

In the first quarter Saturday, USU ran 17 plays over four possessions, gained only 43 yards, punted twice, threw an interception and lost a fumble.

Some of the credit belongs to San Jose State. The Spartans defense made plays early on.

As Utah State head coach Blake Anderson explained: “They’ve (SJSU) got a good defense. We knew that. They made some plays that really rattled us early.”

Some of the blame falls on USU’s offense, though. Bonner’s interception came after he forced the ball into double coverage, trying to find wide receiver Deven Thompkins (Bonner has had at least one throw every game where he tries to force action to Thompkins and often pays for it).

On the fumble, Utah State’s O-line collapsed much earlier than expected, which led to a strip sack of Bonner.

On one of the early drives that ended in a punt, penalties hurt the Aggies to the point that they technically only gained two yards in three plays.

The game wasn’t only just the first quarter, though, and after the first 15 minutes, USU was dominant offensively.

The Aggies outscored the Spartans 43-3 after falling behind 14-0, scored 24 points in the second quarter alone and made a solid SJSU defense look completely overmatched.

Bonner threw for 263 yards and four touchdowns, his third straight game accounting for four touchdown passes.

Thompkins had yet another 100 yard receiving game, tying Kevin Curtis for a school record despite being the singular focus of the San Jose State defense.

Utah State out-gained San Jose State 410 yards to 150, nearly rushing for more yards (147) than SJSU gained in total.

The Aggies averaged 13.2 yards per catch, 3.1 yards per carry, and converted eight of 17 third downs.

Forget the first quarter, and USU was elite offensively, as befits a top 15 offense in the country.

“Didn’t plan on spotting them 14 points to get started... but from that point on (we outscored them) 48-3, I think,’” Anderson said.

“Something crazy like that. ... The offense got rolling, we wore them down. The run game started getting going and we threw the ball well again tonight.”

It wasn’t perfect and slow starts may yet hurt the Aggies this season, but the good on offense far outweighed the bad against San Jose State.

Grade: B+

Defense

Don’t look now, but Utah State’s defense is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Early in the year, the Aggies’ defense was a clear weakness, one exploited by Air Force, Boise State and BYU.

Against San Jose State, though, USU’s defense was excellent, continuing a trend of recent weeks, though on Saturday the Aggies were better than ever.

Utah State held San Jose State to just 12 yards rushing, which is tied for the fewest by an opponent this season (Hawaii) and tied for the 19th fewest in school history.

USU also held San Jose State to 150 yards of total offense, which is a season-low for an opponent, and the fewest an Aggie defense has allowed since Weber State managed only 138 yards of offense in 2013.

Utah State tallied eight tackles for loss — Nick Heninger, Marcus Moore and and Phillip Paea each had 1.5 — Byron Vaughns had a team-high two quarterback hurries and the Aggies forced three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception.

Safety Ajani Carter had two of those turnovers, forcing and and recovering a fumble and then later picking off SJSU quarterback Nick Starkel.

Linebacker Cash Gilliam recovered a dropped snap.

Utah State’s defense gave up only 10 points in the game — SJSU had a pick six — a touchdown on a short field and a late field goal.

The Aggies forced eight punts and seven of those came after the SJSU offense went three-and-out.

San Jose State converted only one third down try out of 12 opportunties, and averaged 7.3 yards per reception and 0.5 yards per carry.

It was simply an elite showing by Utah State’s defense, a group that is coming together at just the right time.

“From beginning to end, there were really no breakdowns,” Anderson said. “We created turnovers, created pressure and really stalled their run game. ...They played a lights out game all night.”

Grade: A+

Special Teams

For the second consecutive game, Utah State’s special teams were fine. USU kicker Connor Coles made two field goals — from 32 and 40 yards — though he missed a third try, ending a run of eight consecutive makes.

Savon Scarver and Thompkins both had decent kick returns — Scarver returned one kick 21 yards, while Thompkins returned another 14 yards — and punt returner Jordan Nathan caught the ball in SJSU territory multiple times, setting the Aggies up for easy scores.

Utah State prevented the Spartans from doing much on special teams. SJSU had a few good returns — Charlie Bostic III averaged 20 yards a return, accounting for 80 return yards — and made a field goal, but ultimately neither team was able to make a game-changing play on special teams.

Utah State didn’t need elite special teams play, and hasn’t in recent weeks as the offense and defense have been clicking.

And in fairness, what the Aggies got from its special teams unit was more than enough on Saturday.

“We talked about needing to be patient today, that we had a lot of respect for their team, what they could do on both sides (of the ball),” Anderson said.

“So, the ability to run the clock like that and maintain it, and kind of play field position football to some degree is something that we need to be able to do in tough games. And on the road against an opponent like this, that’s a tremendous tough environment (to accomplish that).”

Grade: C+