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3 takeaways from Utah State’s Mountain division-clinching victory over New Mexico

Utah State defensive end Nick Heninger (42) celebrates with cornerback Jaden Smith (39) and long snapper Jacob Garcia (49) after recovering a fumble during the second half of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M. Utah State won 35-10. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
AP

Do you hear that sound?

That’s the sound of Utah State football fans and players letting out a collective sigh of relief.

After putting themselves in the driver seat in the Mountain West’s Mountain division with a dominant win over San Jose State two weeks ago, the Aggies relinquished that spot after being crushed last week by Wyoming and needed to win Friday and receive help from San Diego State in order to get into the conference championship game.

With a 35-10 victory over the New Mexico Lobos Friday afternoon and a San Diego State win over Boise State, the Aggies edged their way into the Mountain West title game for the first time since 2013.

The Aggies got their ninth win in a season that many expected would be a rebuilding campaign in Blake Anderson’s first year as head coach.

Quarterback Logan Bonner bounced back from a rough game against the Cowboys, throwing for 312 yards and five touchdown passes.

The fifth touchdown strike gave the quarterback 32 scores on the season, which tied Jordan Love’s Utah State record for the most touchdowns thrown in a single season.

But Bonner wasn’t the only one who etched his name into the record books on Friday.

Though he recorded just five catches for 35 yards, Deven Thompkins’ outing was enough for the senior to set the Utah State single season receiving yardage record.

Thompkins finished the regular season with 87 catches for 1,543 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Aggies have scored themselves a bonus game to play the No. 21-ranked Aztecs, who are appearing in their first Mountain West title game since they won it in 2016.

The game will take place in Carson, California, on Dec. 4 at 1 p.m.

Here are three takeaways from Friday’s division-clinching victory:

Downfield passing attack makes a return

Big plays have become somewhat of a trademark identity of the 2021 Utah State offense but were nowhere to be found last week against Wyoming.

Aside from a 41-yard touchdown catch by Thompkins, the longest completion allowed by the Cowboys went for 17 yards.

It took little time, however, for the Aggies to revive their downfield attack against the Lobos. In the first half alone, Bonner tossed touchdowns passes of 27, 39, 36 and 76 yards.

Though the New Mexico secondary isn’t among the best in the Mountain West, the deep-play success Friday afternoon gave Utah State some offensive momentum that was in short supply after the Wyoming defeat.

“We lived off the big play and we knew we would have to,” Anderson said. “(New Mexico defensive coordinator) Rocky Long is good at what he does defensively and (we knew) he was going to make it extremely hard for (us) to run the ball and play ball control offense.

“He was going to force (us) to connect on the deep ones, and luckily we did or it could’ve been a much different game.”

Bonner is going to be feeling this season when he’s older

The junior quarterback has taken his fair share of hits this season. On multiple occasions, Andrew Peasley has had to step in while Bonner has been tended to on the sidelines.

Once again Friday, Peasley’s services were needed as Bonner jumped on a loose football at the end of the third quarter and came up favoring his ribs.

Before that, Bonner had taken a fair amount of shots from New Mexico pass rushers.

Peasley also ended up leaving the game late in the fourth quarter when he fell awkwardly on his shoulder after running for a first down.

Though both quarterback injuries weren’t directly caused by protection issues, Anderson has said throughout the season that his team’s protection needs to improve.

Anderson said postgame Friday that he doesn’t believe Bonner’s injury is a serious one, but he couldn’t say the same about Peasley.

Bonner didn’t dance around with his response when asked how he was feeling after the game and about his availability for the championship contest.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Bonner said with a smirk.

Aggies love the Aztecs...for now

Losing last week forfeited Utah State’s opportunity to control its own destiny in the Mountain division.

Needing San Diego State to get a win over Boise State in addition to having Utah State win its own game, Aggie fans doubled as Aztec fans Friday afternoon, but that relationship ended up being very short-lived.

With both teams winning their respective games, they will face each other for the chance to be crowned champions of the Mountain West Conference in a matchup that— on paper —looks like it will be a difficult one for Utah State.

Anderson said he and his team were notified about the Aztecs’ win as the fourth quarter was beginning, which motivated the players to finish strong.

“Coach Anderson brought us over at the beginning of the fourth quarter and told us, ‘Hey, San Diego State took care of business. We’ve got to finish this game the right way,’” senior defensive end Nick Henniger said.

“I remember telling them, ‘Is Coach Anderson trying to make me cry in the middle of the game?,’ but it was great to hear that.”