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Utah State football report card: The Aggies won again, with another mixed performance

Utah State defeated New Mexico State 35-13, improving to 7-2 this season, but the Aggies once again left something to be desired.

Utah State players and coaches celebrate after Air Force was stopped on fourth down during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Air Force Academy, Colo.
Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette via AP

Expectations are an interesting thing. They fluctuate greatly — even week by week sometimes — and those of the past are quickly forgotten, replaced by whatever the latest ideas are.

There is no better evidence of that than the 2021 Utah State Aggies.

Before the season, a 35-13 win in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday against the New Mexico State Aggies would have been viewed as a major victory. Not because NMSU has a great program, but because a convincing win on the road would have marked a significant step forward for a Utah State program with a new head coach in the middle of a rebuild.

Before the season, expectations for Utah State football were almost nonexistent, though, but that wasn’t the case Saturday given USU boasted a 6-2 record and stood in first place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference.

The Aggies are now 7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference play after beating NMSU, but because of growing expectations — it isn’t crazy to suggest that much of the Aggie fanbase expects a 10-win season at this point — the latest win left a lot to be desired.

Here’s how the Aggies graded out in their win over those other Aggies:

Offense

Grades for a football game are often not as cut and dried as those handed out in much of academia (the early stages at least), and that is the case when examining USU’s offensive performance against NMSU.

In the first half of Saturday’s game, Utah State was dismal on offense. Truly awful. As head coach Blake Anderson said afterward, “Nobody was playing good ball in the first half, nobody.”

Utah State had five offensive possessions through the first two quarters, and mustered only 117 total yards. The Aggies punted twice, turned the ball over on downs and turned the ball over via an interception. USU scored only once in the first half, a touchdown early in the second quarter, but by and large, the offense was ineffectual.

In the second half, however, USU was a completely different team. The Aggies almost tripled their offensive output from the first half with 340 yards of offense and outscored NMSU 28-0. A 21-point third quarter matched USU’s best scoring quarter of the season.

Quarterback Logan Bonner — who struggled mightily early — tied his career-high again with four touchdowns passes, completed 72% of his throws and accounted for 359 passing yards.

Wide receiver Deven Thompkins had a historic performance with nine receptions for a career-high 215 yards, the ninth-most receiving yards in a single game in school history. It was his seventh game with over 100 receiving yards this season and he had a career-high 242 all-purpose yards.

Derek Wright and Justin McGriff kept up their strong play, too, as did running back Elelyon Noa — all three scored touchdowns.

In the second half, the Aggies were great on offense, completely woken up from the malaise that plagued them the first 30 minutes.

“I went after them a little bit (at halftime),” Anderson said. “Honestly, I wasn’t so much about going after them, it was just being truthful with them. I’ve been honest with them all week about how tough this road trip is ... and that it was our responsibility to play at the level we’re supposed to play at, not to play to the crowd, not to play to the environment, not to play to the opponent.

“And I told them at halftime that nothing had surprised me to this point, that we had done what a lot of teams do when they come here... They came out flat and had not played their best, not played inspired football. And we were either going to make a decision to go out and play the second half like we’re capable of, or we’re going to go home and regret letting one get away. And (our guys) really responded.”

How do you grade such a Jekyll and Hyde-like performance? In simplest terms, USU could have played better, but could have also been worse. So average it is.

Grade: C

Defense

While the Aggies’ offense did its best to impress Robert Louis Stevenson, the defense was much more consistent.

Early on, USU struggled against the run — NMSU scored on two of its first three possessions, moving the ball on the ground at ease behind quarterback Jonah Johnson and running back Juwaun Price — but those struggles didn’t last long.

Of New Mexico State’s 10 offensive possessions, only three ended with scores — a touchdown and two field goals. The hosting Aggies mustered only 347 yards of offense in the game, 49 yards on the ground (as a reminder, sack yardage is taken out of rushing totals in college).

USU’s defensive front had arguably its best performance of the season, tallying seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Marcus Moore, Nick Heninger, Patrick Joyner Jr., Byron Vaughns, you name the D-lineman, and they probably had a good game.

“Yeah, we had to have it,” Anderson said. “They (NMSU) have a really good wide receiver corps and a quarterback that if you give him time, he can connect the dots. We saw him do that when he did have time. I thought early they did a really good job of protecting him, and that’s how they moved the ball.

“But again, we dialed up the intensity, and little by little, we started to fatigue them and played much, much better down the stretch. We had a number of guys get (to the QB) and land and get him off schedule and force them to punt the ball, which we needed.”

USU limited NMSU to just 1.4 yards per cary and 9.9 yards per reception, and the other Aggies converted only converted on 3rd down five times out of 15 tries.

The Aggies could have been better at forcing turnovers — USU didn’t come away with one, despite NMSU fumbling three times — and nearly gave up 300 yards passing to Johnson (298), but overall, Utah State’s defense played one of its best games of the season.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

Usually, Utah State’s special teams are one of the Aggies’ strongest suits. Special teams have won more games for USU than they have lost, and it makes sense given Savon Scarver, Thompkins and Connor Coles all play integral roles in the unit.

Against NMSU, though, the Aggies’ special teams were pretty quiet. Punter Stephen Kotsanlee had good showing, the few times he punted. He had two 50-plus yard punts (53, 51) and is now up to five 50-yard punts on the season.

Coles didn’t miss an extra point — something often taken for granted, but misses do happen.

Thompkins had 27 yards in the return game and Scarver had 20, but the duo only had three total chances to return a kick.

By and large, special teams were quiet for Utah State, an average performance.

Grade: C