Utah State quarterback Cooper Legas put into words what many believed.
Had USU lost to Air Force Saturday night in Logan, the season would’ve — for all intents and purposes — been over.
The Aggies still would have played their remaining games, and hopefully for their sake improved along the way, but a loss to the Falcons could have — and probably would have — done them in.
“If we lose to tonight, it would’ve been like, ‘What are we playing for?’” Legas said. “There is no real motivation to go get the (Mountain West Conference) championship because if we lose this one we are kind of out of the running.”
The Aggies didn’t lose at home against the Falcons, however.
Instead, they played their best and most complete game of the season and defeated Air Force 34-27.
Utah State is still just 2-4 overall and 1-1 in conference, but with the win, things look much, much better in Cache Valley.
There is something left to play for — yes, a conference title — and now there is some hope that the Aggies have what it takes to get there.
“This one was huge against a good team like Air Force,” Legas said. “We are still in contention to go to the championship. I feel like this is really only getting the ball rolling, beating a team like this.
“Now we can go on a run.”
It might feel hyperbolic, but it is difficult to overstate how important Utah State’s victory was.
It was a single win in a long college football season and the Aggies are still two games under .500 with six games to go, but Utah State looked truly competent for arguably the first time all season.
Entering the game, the Aggies’ offense was one of the worst in college football — ranking 104th in passing offense and 72nd in rushing offense. Against the Falcons, though, Utah State scored on six of nine drives and accumulated 414 total yards of offense.
Legas, in only his second career start, was about as good as could be expected. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 215 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for 76 yards and another score.
Wide receiver Brian Cobbs built upon a strong performance against BYU and looked like a true No. 1 option, with eight catches for 136 yards and a score.
Running back Calvin Tyler Jr. rushed for 136 yards and scored his first touchdown of the season.
The list goes on. And on.
With limited opportunity given Air Force’s triple option attack that eats up time of possession like a poor college student devours bad pizza, the Aggies were efficient and effective — nothing like they’d been previously.
That held true on defense and special teams as well. Utah State’s defense limited Air Force below its season average in rushing yards — well below with just 264 — and forced multiple turnovers at key junctures that effectively decided the game.
Cornerback Ajani Carter was particularly impactful, forcing a fumble in the fourth quarter that led to Legas’ touchdown run and then later intercepting a pass by Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels that all but sealed the win.
The Aggies’ special teams, meanwhile, made no costly mistakes and contributed both points — two Connor Coles field goals — and good field position.
It was Utah State’s best overall game of the season. Simple as that.
And that is before accounting for multiple clutch conversions on fourth downs in the second half, one a slant to Cobb on a fourth and 2, the other a shovel pass to Terrell Vaughn on a fourth and 4 that went for a touchdown.
“Very, very proud of the guys,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “I told them all week that the approach of them coming to work every day is paying off. I know it hadn’t shown in the win/loss column like we’d like, but I told them that tonight it was going to click. I believed it, but we still had to go out and do it and we did.
“They played really well in all three phase, did a lot of things extremely well. With the exception of a couple mistakes along the way, we played about as good as we could. Air Force made it really difficult, but we came up with big plays when we had to and were very balanced. That is what we have to see every week.”
By Anderson’s own admission, the Aggies were — understandably — hanging by a thread entering the game. Four consecutive losses, a general lack of competitiveness and dwindling hopes for the postseason threatened to upend the team.
“If a team needed a win worse than that group, I don’t know who that is,” Anderson said. “They’ve been working the same all year and it just hadn’t quite translated to the field like you’d want, and you get to a point where you are fragile, man.
“You knew this thing could go south real quick if we didn’t see some fruit from the labor and the sacrifice.”
The win over Air Force immediately changes that — for the time being at least, with games remaining against Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, Hawaii, San Jose State and Boise State.
“You go 1-4 and you can have a team that falls apart and guys stop believing,” Carter said. “Guys don’t want to be here no more, but a lot of guys kept going, kept believing in the process and our coaches. We have a lot of guys that want to win and you saw it.”
And now, the Aggies believe more victories await, and for the first time this season it is actually believable.
“This could be huge,” Anderson said. “This could be the catalyst for a ton of positive moving forward. (This win) did validate all that we’ve been telling them. All the work, the sacrifice, unselfishness behavior, the extra time. ... This validates that this is how we get this done. This is what it is going to take.
“I’d like to think that this will give us the energy we need to dial it up another notch. If they do, we will just continue to get better.”
And maybe, just maybe, Utah State can turn around what for a while looked to be a dismal season.