For the better part of three quarters Saturday night against the Pac-12’s Washington State Cougars, Utah State felt like a revitalized program that could shake off the ghosts of a hauntingly forgettable 2020 season, even as the Aggies trailed by nine points going into the final quarter.
In the fourth though, Utah State proved it was the better team against a Power Five opponent.
With a host of transfers leading the way, the Aggies rallied from 12 down to beat Washington State 26-23 at Martin Field in Pullman, Washington, on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Logan Bonner to Deven Thompkins with 11 seconds remaining.
Here’s how the Aggies graded in their season opener in Blake Anderson’s first game as head coach:
For much of the night, Utah State was maddeningly inconsistent on offense. While the Aggies could move the ball — they finished with 439 yards of total offense — they were 6 of 15 on third down and scored just three field goals in their first nine possessions. That included kicking a field goal after having a first-and-goal at the 1 in the first quarter, as well as back-to-back turnovers in the second.
Going into the fourth quarter, this grade was a C-minus. That fourth-quarter performance, though, really raised the bar and, for now, the confidence level that Utah State can improve significantly from a dismal offensive effort last season.
A big storyline for Utah State on offense was that Anderson chose to switch off at quarterback between Bonner, the Arkansas State transfer, and Andrew Peasley through much of the night, and perhaps that contributed to the team’s unevenness on that side of the ball.
Bonner, though, sparked the Aggies’ two fourth-quarter touchdown drives after Washington State went up 23-11 with 12:11 to play. The first drive was a methodical 14-play, 70-yard drive that took 6:38 off the clock and was capped by a 2-yard touchdown run from Oregon State transfer Calvin Tyler Jr.
After the Aggie defense forced a punt, Anderson changed gears on how he operated the QB situation — he had previously alternated quarterbacks on each possession — and stuck with Bonner for another series. It paid off, as Bonner completed his final 10 passes of the game.
That included a 7-yard pass to Tyler on fourth-and-3 near midfield with just over a minute to play. After a trio of yardage-churning plays and a defensive pass interference, Bonner hit Thompkins for the game-winning 7-yard touchdown pass.
Bonner finished the night completing 17 of 24 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Tyler rushed for 84 yards and the score on 14 carries, with a 6.0 yards-per-carry average, and Thompkins caught eight passes for 94 yards and the game-winner.
In reality, the comeback would not have been possible if the Aggies’ defense hadn’t done enough to keep the team within striking distance. That was something USU struggled to do last year, when opposing teams often turned one or two positive plays into a steamroller of points in quick order.
Instead, Utah State found itself in position to beat a Power Five opponent because it only allowed Washington State to score three points off two costly USU turnovers and held the Cougars to just 3 of 11 on third down.
The Aggies only gave up one sustained touchdown drive — Washington State’s first touchdown came on a 64-yard Max Borghi run, then the next series the Cougars went 69 yards in eight plays and scored on a 12-yard Donovan Ollie touchdown grab to go ahead 20-11.
Yes, the Aggies allowed Washington State to drive inside the USU 20 on four out of five possessions spanning from the second quarter through the end of the third. The Aggies, though, forced Washington State into a key three-and-out with under six minutes to play, giving the USU offense the opportunity to drive for the game-winner.
It was a refreshing site to see the Aggies’ defense make a key stop when they needed one.
Defensively, too, Utah State benefitted from some strong leadership from transfers. Former Arkansas State and Fresno State linebacker Justin Rice led the team with seven tackles — including a tackle for loss — and a pass breakup, while Miami transfer Patrick Joyner Jr. came up with a second-quarter safety and had three tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss on the night.
Both teams had good nights punting the ball — Stephen Kotsanlee’s punt that was downed at the Washington State 1 and set up Joyner’s safety was a highlight — and adequate return games.
Where Utah State had the clear advantage, though, was one mistake, and in a 3-point game, it was a costly one for Washington State.
Connor Coles made all three of his field-goal attempts for the Aggies, helping Utah State score on two of its three third-quarter possessions before the fourth-quarter flourish.
Washington State’s Dean Janikowski was 3 of 4 on field goals. He scored the Cougars’ final points on a 27-yard field goal early in the fourth and scored the team’s first six points on two second-quarter field goals, but he also missed a 31-yarder in the second that clanked off the upright, a costly mishap in such a close game.