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‘An unbelievable ride’: Utah State finishes 11-win season as first LA Bowl champions

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Utah State defensive end Nick Heninger (42) holds up a championship belt after they won the LA Bowl NCAA college football game 24-13 over Oregon State in Inglewood, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

AP

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Since last offseason, the mindset for the 2021 Utah State Aggies has been “get one degree better” every day.

That’s head coach Blake Anderson’s philosophy, and to say the players bought into that philosophy this season would be an understatement.

They never talked about winning championships or winning bowl games in NFL stadiums, they just set their vision to one day, one degree at a time.

After so many days and so many degrees, the end of the season approached, and the Aggies reached a temperature that can only be described as white-hot.

The philosophy scored the program its first Mountain West Conference championship, and on Saturday evening, under the bright lights of SoFi Stadium, scored the team a 24-13 victory over the Oregon State Beavers in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl, giving the Aggies their 11th win of the season and capping off what has been the best season in school history.

Utah State hadn’t beaten a Power Five opponent since 2014 before the season began but picked up its second Power Five victory this year on Saturday, something that’s never been done at Utah State before.

“This journey started over a year ago in less than ideal circumstances,” Anderson said after the bowl win.

“We traveled into the season with most the football community across the country not expecting much of us, but the group never bought into that, worked hard…and learned how to overcome the odds in almost every situation.”

When quarterback Logan Bonner, who set the Utah State single season passing yardage record early in the game, came up with a knee injury toward the end of the first quarter, the Aggies once again were presented with an interesting challenge to overcome.

With normal backup Andrew Peasley out with a shoulder injury, it was redshirt sophomore Cooper Legas’ turn to contribute not only for the first time this season, but the first time in his career.

Legas was thrust into action on a stage that will house the Super Bowl in February, with his team trailing by seven points. Not exactly the most secure of circumstances for a young signal-caller to see his first game action but, just like his team had done all year, Legas stepped in and exceeded everyone’s expectations.

On his first snap from scrimmage, Legas tossed a bomb downfield to Deven Thompkins who caught it and ran 62 yards for the game’s first touchdown.

The sophomore then went on to lead yet another touchdown drive on Utah State’s next possession to give the Aggies a 14-10 lead over the Beavers with 4:24 left in the first half.

The Aggies never gave up that lead.

The young quarterback finished the night 11-for-20 for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and even added a 34-yard catch on double pass play that Anderson said was in the gameplan for Bonner, but turned out much better since it ended up being drawn up for the much quicker Legas.

None of the Aggies were surprised by Legas’ perfomance. In fact, it’s what they expected.

“On the sideline when I found out that Logan went down, I went over and grabbed Coop and just told him, ‘It’s time to step up,’” Thompkins said. “Honestly, he didn’t even need (the pep talk). He was ready to go, and that just showed the future he’s going to have here as an Aggie. I’m definitely proud of him.”

Thompkins certainly did his part to help the young quarterback make plays. The senior wide receiver — who has the option to return next season if he chooses to do so — ended up being named offensive MVP after his six catch, 115-yard (his ninth 100-yard game of the year) and one touchdown performance.

As pleasantly surprising as Legas’ game was, the true story of the game was a Utah State defense that found new life over the final two games of the season.

Utah State found itself a 6.5-point underdog heading into the game, supposedly because Oregon State and its star running back, BJ Baylor, seemed like a bad matchup for an Aggie squad that had severely struggled to contain opposing lead backs throughout the season.

It appeared that the oddsmakers might be onto something early, as the Beavers marched down the field in three plays (two run plays) and 58 seconds to score the first touchdown on the game’s opening possession.

Maybe the defensive magic had worn off?

Nope, it didn’t.

The opening touchdown would end up being the only time the Beavers found their way into the end zone the whole night.

The Utah State front held Baylor to just 80 yards on 18 carries for a 4.3 average — well below his season average of 5.9 — and held the Beavers to 4.2 yards per carry overall.

One of the head-turning statistics of the night was how former Oregon State-turned-Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. outgained Baylor on the ground.

Tyler, whom Anderson said played with a chip on his shoulder, finished with 26 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown.

The lack of chunk run plays for the Beavers allowed the Utah State pass rush to get after quarterback Chance Nolan. Suddenly, an Oregon State offensive line that had only given up 10 sacks all season allowed four on Saturday.

Three of the four sacks were notched by senior Nick Heninger, who was named defensive MVP of the game. The three-sack performance was a career best for the defensive end, who also finished with a career-high five tackles for loss.

Heninger was understandably emotional after the game knowing that this would be his final time taking the field as a collegiate football player, but he was also incredibly happy with the way he was able to make his way out the door.

“We’ve got a relentless, aggressive defensive front,” Heninger said when asked what allowed the defense to exploit an Oregon State offensive line that had been non-exploitable for most of the season.

“We as a defense were able to capitalize on those opportunities, and it was 100% a team effort. I’m super proud of the defense.”

Up 24-13 with 2:31 left in the game, Tyler fumbled what could’ve been a game-icing touchdown run into the end zone, which was recovered for a touchback by the Beavers.

Heninger admitted after the game —much to Anderson’s disdain — that he was somewhat happy when that fumble occurred because it meant the defense could get the chance to seal the win.

The unit did just that when Hunter Reynolds picked off Nolan four plays later.

A few victory formations later, and the Aggies found themselves as the first ever LA Bowl champions and looked on as Anderson hoisted the wrestling-style championship belt (the bowl game’s unique trophy) over his head like a true WWE superstar.

“It has been an unbelievable ride,” Anderson said. “Start with a Power Five win, finish with a Power Five win, conference title, 11-3. The best season in Utah State history, and I could not be more proud of the guys that get to leave that legacy behind.”