Utah State did just enough to keep winning and punch its ticket to the postseason
The Aggies defeated San Jose State 35-31 and improved to 6-5 on the season, becoming bowl eligible.
Utah State is bowl eligible.
Arguably the talking point that emanated from the Aggies program over the last month, after the dream of winning the Mountain West Conference championship faded away, bowl eligibility became a reality Saturday night with Utah State’s 35-31 victory over San Jose State.
Now 6-5 on the year and 5-2 in MW play, the Aggies have won five of their last six games — three in a row — and now qualify to play two more games this year rather than have the season guaranteed to come to an end on Friday in Boise, Idaho.
Sure, the conference title isn’t coming back to Logan this year, but excitement was understandably evident late Saturday night. There were smiles to be found all around.
From 1-4 to start the season to 6-5 now is a turnaround worth celebrating.
“Super proud,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “Excited to be bowl eligible. I know we have talked a lot about that the last few weeks and just how much it means to this group.
“This is one of those that they will enjoy. We did not play perfectly, we turned the ball over way too much, but I thought from beginning to end, the energy level and physical nature of play really made it an awesome night for us.
“Did enough to win it.”
That has been an ever-present theme for Utah State football this season.
All year long, the Aggies have struggled to play their best, and even during the season saving winning stretch — starting with the win over Air Force on Oct. 8 — the Aggies have regularly eked out victories and done not much more than that.
That was the case once again Saturday night, as Utah State pulled out a win that it maybe shouldn’t have had.
The Aggies lost the turnover battle soundly, with three compared to none for San Jose State.
“We turned the ball over way too much. Way too much,” Anderson said. “Should not have won the game.”
The Aggies were undisciplined, again, committing eight penalties for 100 yards (SJSU had only five penalties for 40 yards, 15 of which came on the very last play of the game).
Chevan Cordeiro beat Cooper Legas in the battle of quarterbacks, throwing for 257 yards and four touchdowns, compared to Legas’ line of 244 yards passing, one touchdown and two interceptions (Legas did complete a career high number of passes (23), and his 244 yards were also a new career high).
SJSU receiver Elijah Cooks was the best skill position player in the game, with seven catches for 125 yards and three touchdowns (USU receiver Brian Cobbs was a standout performer too, with 10 catches for 122 yards).
Really the only areas in which the Aggies were better than the Spartans were in the ground game (running back Calvin Tyler Jr. rushed for a game-high 125 yards and three touchdowns) and along the defensive front (USU finished with five sacks and seven tackles for loss, compared to two sacks and three TFLs recorded by SJSU).
And yet, as it has done in all its recent wins, Utah State made enough of plays to win the game.
None proved bigger Saturday than Tyler’s final touchdown run.
After jumping out to a commanding 21-6 lead early in the game thanks in part to a punt return for a touchdown by cornerback Jaden Smith (he recovered a punt blocked by safety Ike Larsen), the Aggies were outscored by the Spartans 25-7.
The game, which had looked to be in hand, quite simply was unraveling in front of Utah State’s eyes.
“The second half, you were a little nervous,” Anderson said. “You knew that (San Jose State’s) offense could get on track at any point, and they did do some good things.
“The main thing was the vertical ball on the outside. I thought Cordeiro put the ball right where he had to.”
The Aggies fell behind 31-28 in the fourth quarter but then managed to reel off a nine play, 75-yard scoring drive, which Tyler paid off with a 3-yard scoring run that gave the Aggies the lead for the final time.
“There was no pressure,” Tyler said. “We’d been in these moments. We practice these moments. No pressure, but we did push the urgency.”
The Aggies’ defense then held up one final time and forced San Jose State to turn the ball over on downs to effectively end the game.
“It was just about how bad did you want it,” senior defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said. “We knew how important that drive was.”
Added Anderson: “I was proud of our guys. They didn’t get panicky. They just kept playing, and when we had to have a drive, we put one together.”
That is what Utah State has managed to do time and again as the season has worn down, in wins over Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, Hawaii and now San Jose State.
With one regular season game remaining, at Boise State on Friday, there is hope that the Aggies can do it again.
But if not, Utah State has achieved what it set out to do. The Aggies can now go bowling, and are only the second team in program history to start the year 1-4 and go on to become bowl eligible.
“It is an amazing feeling,” Motu’apuaka said. “I know all of us boys and the coaches are just so happy. It shows our resilience.
“A lot of people, when you are 1-4 and not doing too well, when you lose to Weber (State) the way we did, people might drop their gloves, but we never gave up. We were confident in what we were capable of doing. We just put our heads down and now we are here.”