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3 takeaways from Utah State football’s first-ever Mountain West Conference championship

The Aggies have been members of the MW conference since 2013 and hadn’t won a league title in football before Saturday.

Utah State celebrates after defeating San Diego State during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
John McCoy, AP

On December 19, 2020, the night of last season’s Mountain West Conference championship, the Utah State Aggies weren’t even an afterthought.

USU had just muddled through one of the worst seasons in program history, finishing 1-5 overall, and aside from the recent news that Blake Anderson had been hired as the program’s new head coach, there was little to no reason for the greater college football community to give the Aggies even a single thought.

Fast forward a year, and Utah State is now college football royalty.

The Aggies are the Mountain West Conference champions, having defeated the No. 19 San Diego State Aztecs Saturday afternoon in the MW conference title game.

It wasn’t a close contest.

USU handled SDSU from start to finish, winning 46-13. The Aggies broke MW record after MW record, with a few school records thrown in, obliterating an Aztec team that was considered the clear favorite to win the title.

Utah State racked up 410 yards on offense and limited San Diego State to 315 yards. The Aggies forced three turnovers and racked up five sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Throw in two blocked punts, and it was a complete showing by the Aggies.

“Beyond proud of this group of guys,” Anderson said. “Felt all week that the only people that really truly believed we could do this were the guys in the room.

“Across the country, all the conversation and all the chatter was really about San Diego State. We used that to fuel us, and I felt very confident that they’d come in and play their best ball.”

The Aggies indeed played their best game of the season at the perfect time, and for the first time in program history, they are MW champs.

Here are three takeaways from Utah State’s conference championship victory:

Blake Anderson is a special coach

Utah State head coach Blake Anderson holds up the trophy after defeating San Diego State during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
John McCoy, AP

Time and again this season, Anderson has credited his coaching staff, and more importantly his players, for any and all success had by Utah State.

Week in and week out, the Aggie head coach has praised those around him, deflecting attention and admiration directed at himself. He did that again Saturday, but the reality is Anderson is a special and talented college football coach. The title game victory was just further confirmation.

Anderson’s Utah State team pulled off one of the best turnarounds by any FBS program this season, going from a single win in 2020 to 10 wins this season (Michigan has gone from two wins last year to 11 this year, and Northern Illinois went from zero to nine).

Anderson is the only first-year head coach in the country to win 10 games this season. None of the other hires from last offseason came close.

Listen to his players — on Saturday that meant quarterback Logan Bonner, defensive end Byron Vaughns and wide receiver Brandon Bowling — and it becomes clear, Anderson is not a regular coach.

“We believe he is the Mountain West coach of the Year. Without a doubt. No disrespect to San Diego State coach (Brady) Hoke, he is an unbelievable coach, but we are unbelievably proud of this man (Anderson). Me and Brandon (Bowling) have known him for a long time, and he’s been through a lot in his life. We followed him (to Logan) because we believed in him. We wouldn’t want anyone else to be our coach.” — Logan Bonner

“I have been with that dude for way too long, but I am so proud to be a player of his. I don’t know where’d I be without him bringing me here.” — Brandon Bowling

“My parents jokingly call Coach Anderson a god himself. They say he is Jesus’ homeboy and they walk on water together. He brought me here and I trusted him from Day 1 because I knew he had good intentions. I’m proud to be a part of this. No one believed in us, but Coach Anderson told us every day to believe in ourselves. When he says he is going to do something, he will walk on water for you, in real life. He is going to do what he says he is going to do.” — Byron Vaughns

Logan Bonner has an argument for best QB in Utah State history

Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner (1) runs toward the end zone in the first half against the San Diego State during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
John McCoy, AP

Chuckie Keeton and Jordan Love have company.

Keeton and Love are largely considered the best quarterbacks to ever suit up for Utah State, at least in modern era. Both were dynamic in their own way, record setters and winners.

After the title game victory over San Diego State, Bonner deserves to be in the conversation as the No. 1 QB in program history, though.

Bonner has only played one season for Utah State — he still has a bowl game remaining this year and will return for a final season next year — but he led the Aggies to only the fourth 10-win season in program history.

He has broken Love’s record for most touchdown passes in a single season, is 14 yards from breaking Love’s record for the most passing yards in a single season and led the Aggies to their first win over a Power Five opponent since the 1970s.

In the MW title game, Bonner threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns, the latter a new conference record.

He didn’t beat BYU, but Bonner has done everything else Keeton and Love ever did in a single season.

He won’t have the longevity of either Keeton or Love, but Bonner has proven himself to be one of the best QBs to ever play at Utah State.

“We needed him to play great today,” Anderson said. “He has gotten better and better as the season has progressed. He gets better snap by snap. He’s not a guy that picks it all up Day 1, but you’ve seen him play his best ball the past few weeks.

“He has not been physically 100% for quite awhile, but he is impossible to get off the field. He let one get away today, but other than that I thought he played flawless.”

The Aggies don’t win the title without their earlier losses

Utah State celebrates after defeating the San Diego State during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
John McCoy, AP

Utah State dominated San Diego State. That is the simplest way to describe Saturday’s action.

The Aggies were more physical, executed at a significantly higher level than the Aztecs and won every phase of the game — offense, defense and special teams.

It was the best game USU played all year, and it would’t have happened without prior losses to BYU, Boise State and especially Wyoming.

Throughout the season, Utah State found success with its quickness. The Aggies couldn’t out-physical teams, but they could be and were faster.

That formula worked often, save for the games against the Cougars, Broncos and Cowboys.

The loss to the Cowboys in particular seemed to doom all hope of a USU conference title. Wyoming manhandled Utah State, and SDSU was a team in a similar vein.

The loss taught the Aggies how to beat San Diego State, though.

“I don’t think we win today without that game. That was a game that we needed to happen to learn some really valuable lessons. Our guys hadn’t been in this position in quite awhile, most in their career,” Anderson said.

“As a staff and as players were learned a lot about ourselves in that loss. That challenged us in a lot of ways but that let us play the game today that we needed to play two weeks ago. There are a lot of similarities between San Diego State’s offense and Wyoming’s and a lot of similarities in defensive style.

We needed that game to expose us to things that enabled us to play our best today. We talk all the time about failing forward. We learned enough from Wyoming to really grow to where we needed to be. Without that Wyoming game, this doesn’t happen today.”