It has been a trajectory-altering season for the Utah State football program.
The Aggies won their first Mountain West Conference championship and reached double-digit wins in head coach Blake Anderson’s first year at the helm.
The historic season earned Utah State the right to play in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Saturday for what will be the first college football game played at recently built SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
As the Aggies head into their bowl game against the Oregon State Beavers, much of the spotlight has deservedly focused on Anderson and the job he’s done to turn the program around. But if you ask Anderson where the spotlight should be, he’d say much of it should be shining upon his senior class — which he hopes to send off with a win in its final game for the university.
“I’d love to see our guys finish off (the season) with this one,” Anderson said. “It would be an unbelievable legacy to leave behind for this senior class.”
Some program veterans and some recent transfers, the class of 24 seniors includes key contributors on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, linebacker Justin Rice led the team in tackles (115), safety Shaq Bond led the secondary and Nick Heninger powered the late-blooming pass rush for the Aggies with six sacks this season.
The dynamic receiving trio of Deven Thompkins (1,589 yards and nine touchdowns), Brandon Bowling (784 yards and nine touchdowns) and Derek Wright Jr. (756 yards and 11 touchdowns) led the team in all major receiving categories.
Kicker Connor Coles and returners Jordan Nathan and Savon Scarver even made significant impacts for the special teams unit.
A big reason for the success of each senior has been how they bought into Anderson’s philosophies so quickly.
“I’ve learned to be more of a student of the game, being coachable,” Thompkins said when asked why he personally was able to have a season in which he has posted the second-most receiving yards in the country.
“I just bought into the program, learned the offense, and was able to take my skill set and implement it and help execute the offense at a high level.”
Though a handful of seniors — like Thompkins — have an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA due to COVID-19 — if they choose to use it — the players who do end up moving on will be tough to replace. But Anderson said that regardless of Saturday’s result, the performances from the group this season were pivotal in helping the program turn around so quickly.
“Win or lose, they’ve done a phenomenal job of setting us on a great path for the future,” Anderson said. “First Mountain West Conference championship and all the things that come with that — this game (against Oregon State) only just adds icing to the cake. Nothing’s going to tarnish the legacy that they have left.”
Anderson added that even though a loss wouldn’t tarnish the season, he and his players still want to go out and get their 11th win and add yet another upset to this season’s resume.
But as the season, and potentially careers, conclude for this senior class, playing a Power Five opponent under the lights of SoFi Stadium in front of a nationally televised audience feels like a fitting sendoff for a group that has helped direct Utah State football through the entrance of an exciting path.
“I think I sat with Nick (Heninger) in the locker room for about five minutes just smiling at each other,” Rice said when asked to describe how he and other seniors were feeling heading into bowl week.
“We’re just so happy that we got to the Mountain West championship, we won the Mountain West championship, and now, coming into the bowl week we just feel overjoyed to finish our senior years out right.”