If Saturday night’s game against rival Colorado State was played a few weeks ago — with everything that went with it — Utah State would not have won.
Aggie head coach Blake Anderson said as much following USU’s 17-13 win on the road against the Rams.
It was an ugly game (the Aggies committed 10 penalties for nearly 100 yards).
It was a choppy game (Utah State committed two turnovers and had a punt blocked).
It was an injury-marred game (the Aggies lost quarterbacks Cooper Legas and Levi Williams, as well as defensive end Byron Vaughns).
On the road in a hostile environment, the Aggies of only a few weeks ago — undisciplined, inexperienced and ineffective — wouldn’t have walked away happy.
“With all the adversity we faced tonight.. and all the things that come with that, you don’t typically win this game,” Anderson said. “This is a game where you go home frustrated.
“... We haven’t shown a lot of maturity this year. We’ve looked like an inexperienced team. Tonight, we did things that experienced football teams do in tough situations. Maybe we grew up a lot. I hope we did.”
Now at 3-4 overall and 2-1 in Mountain West Conference play (undefeated in division competition), Utah State did something bad teams don’t do — win on the road against a conference rival while playing a fourth string quarterback — Bishop Davenport — the entire second half.
Even good teams rarely pull that off.
“Super excited about the win,” Anderson said. “To go on the road and get a win in conference play is No. 1, but to overcome all the adversity we faced tonight, to have a freshman (quarterback) on the field for the whole second half, for him to play as well as he did, for the guys to rally around him, this is one you will remember.”
It certainly wasn’t pretty.
The Aggies were, statistically, the better team throughout the game in nearly offensive category, be it total yards, first downs, third down conversions, total plays, average yards per play and the list goes on.
After Legas left the game with a concussion in the first quarter, though, the Aggies’ offense was largely ineffective, outside of a Davenport-led touchdown drive early in the third quarter.
Speaking of Davenport, the true freshman came into the game having not taken a single rep in practice this year outside of drill work.
There was zero expectation that he’d play at all for Utah State this season after suiting up behind Logan Bonner, Legas and Williams.
“I didn’t (expect to play). Not at all. Not at all,” Davenport said. “I kind of go into every game trying to prepare myself that I am going to go in, but not at all.”
The Aggies had his back, be it running back Calvin Tyler Jr., who rushed for over 100 yards for the third straight game, or the defense, led by Daniel Grzesiak, who finished with a game-high three sacks.
Utah State’s defense was especially effective and held Colorado State to only six points off turnovers, despite the blocked punt, interception and a fumble all taking place in Utah State territory.
“The defense did a great job,” Anderson said. “Holding them to field goals, you can’t say enough about how well they played.”
The Aggies’ defensive front wrecked havoc like it hadn’t in any game this season, and that is saying something considering Utah State entered the game as one of the best teams in the country at generating tackles for loss.
Grzesiak was the headliner, against his former coaching staff no less, with three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a pass breakup, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble, but Vaughns, Patrick Joyner, John Ward, AJ Vongphachanh and MJ Tafisi all made their presence felt in the Rams’ backfield.
As a result, the Aggies’ back end, buoyed by the return of cornerback Michael Anyanwu, played its best game of the season.
“We defended well in the back end, but we played competitively at the point of attack and have done that several weeks in a row,” Anderson said.
“We had really struggled in one-on-one situations early in the year and I’ve been very proud of with how competitive we’ve gotten. Tonight it made a big difference.”
There were plenty mistakes all around, on offense, defense and special teams.
Multiple penalties cost the Aggies a late pick-6, courtesy of safety Gurvan Hall Jr., and kicker Connor Coles missed multiple field goals.
Davenport, understandably, wasn’t all that effective, and completed only 3 of 9 passes for 41 yards.
And yet, the Aggies made play after play when they needed to, embracing every challenge presented.
“We all rally as a team,” Grzesiak said. “We loved it. Blocked punt with the ball on 20 (yard line)? We love it. Y’all could put the ball on the 5 yard line. We love it. That is more fun to me.”
Davenport, for his part, showed poise well beyond his years, and rushed for a touchdown as well as a key first down late in the game that helped Utah State seal the victory.
“He is very calm,” Anderson said. “It was not perfect. He’ll probably tell you he had some butterflies rolling, but the moment wasn’t bigger than him. He connected dots when we needed him to.”
That is what good players and good teams do — make the necessary plays to come away victorious.
The Aggies have done that two weeks in a row now, Saturday night especially.
“That is one you celebrate and remember,” Anderson said. “To give up a blocked punt, to go through three quarterbacks and lose as many guys we did during the game, those are games you typically lose. Somehow we found a way to win.”
Because of it, all of sudden Utah State looks like it might end up being a good team after all.