Utah State was riding high entering Saturday night’s game against rival Wyoming.
The Aggies had won two games in a row and all but turned around their season after a trying start to the year.
A win in Laramie against the Cowboys would have given the Aggies a leg up in the Mountain West Conference race, and USU would have had a real chance at repeating as conference champions.
When the final whistle blew late Saturday night, however, Utah State’s winning streak was over, ended by a 28-14 loss to Wyoming.
In truth, the Cowboys dominated most of the night.
Wyoming out-gained Utah State 529 total yards to 217. Along the way, the Cowboys were nearly three times as effective on the ground as the Aggies (330 rushing yards to 113), were better in the passing game (199 yards to 104), better at converting on third down (50% conversion rate compared to 33%) and better at getting first downs (28 to 13).
Yards per carry, yards per reception, it all favored Wyoming.
Defensively, the Cowboys were better at getting into the backfield (11 tackles for loss compared to four for USU) and better at getting to the quarterback (six sacks to two).
Wyoming was simply the better team, with better players such as running backs Titus Swen (160 rushing yards and three touchdowns) and D.Q. James (120 rushing yards) and quarterback Andrew Peasley (119 passing yards and 29 rushing yards).
And yet, despite all that, Utah State still could have walked out of War Memorial Stadium with a victory.
Maybe even should have.
Too many missed opportunities, however, particularly in the second half, prevented that.
“Disappointed in the execution and the outcome,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “Felt like we played these guys much better than we did a year ago. Kept the score down. Put ourselves in a position in the second half to have opportunities to drive down the field and go ahead.
“Just couldn’t make enough plays to get it done. We felt like we missed a lot of opportunities on the field, and that is something that we are frustrated with.”
What were these opportunities?
The list is long and varied and includes:
- Late in the third quarter, safety Gurvan Hall Jr. dropped an interception that hit him in the hands. A catch there would have almost assuredly turned into a pick-six.
- Cornerback Xavion Steele had his hand on the ball at the Wyoming 1-yard line after a Stephen Kotsanlee punt but was unable to keep it from crossing into the end zone. That touchback started what ended up being a game-sealing touchdown drive for the Cowboys.
- Wide receiver NyNy Davis had the defense beat on a deep vertical route but couldn’t haul in a throw by true freshman quarterback Bishop Davenport. Make the catch, and Davis most likely waltzes into the end zone.
The missed opportunties don’t stop there, but those are just a few of the lowlights.
Time and again, the Aggies were in the right place at the right time but didn’t execute properly.
“I was really proud of how the guys battled,” Anderson said. “The (game) plan was solid, we just have to execute better. We had a couple of real opportunities to make a game of it, we just missed them.
“We did not protect the quarterback well. Needed to keep it cleaner than we did. We struggled with that most of the night... We did not make a ton of competitive catches. (Wyoming) did a good job in coverage, but we needed to fight through some of that and make it easier on (Davenport)... We missed several throws. We had wide open guys we missed. You just can’t do that on the road against a good football team.”
Anderson refused to call the loss a step back for the Aggies, even though they are now 3-5 overall and 2-2 in conference play with four games remaining.
In Anderson’s eyes, Utah State was shorthanded, forced to rely upon multiple freshmen at key positions — quarterback and linebacker, especially — and still had chances to win the game.
That is a step in the right direction, or at the very least treading water.
“We were just a little off,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if it was a step back. We did some really positive things and lost a competitive game against a good football team on the road. A week ago we made plays that we had to and the same thing against Air Force. We made plays when they were presented and capitalized on more opportunities than we did tonight.
“Wyoming deserves credit, but we had several opportunities to go down and score. You have to finish a drive and we just couldn’t do that.”
The Aggies no longer control their own destiny in the conference race, and bowl eligibility will be a hard thing to come by with games remaining against New Mexico, Hawaii, San Jose State and Boise State.
Health, or lack thereof, is a real issue, too, though Anderson hopes the upcoming bye week can help on that front, even if just a little.
Still, the loss to Wyoming represents a real missed opportunity, and the Aggies know it.
“We just didn’t get it done on critical downs,” linebacker AJ Vongphachanh said. “It is tough to have a loss like that against a good conference opponent. We just have to keep our heads up and continue to work. We can only control what we can control from here on out.”
“They fought hard and played physical, just didn’t play well,” added Anderson. “We avoided the big mistake in terms of the big penalty. Other than a deep ball that turned into a pick, we didn’t put the ball on the ground. There were a lot of positives, just not enough to win.”