What to make of a game that has no real implications for either team?
That is a question both the Boise State Broncos and Utah State Aggies had to answer on Friday in Boise in both sides’ regular season finale.
The Broncos had already sealed home field advantage in next week’s Mountain West Conference championship game against the Fresno State Bulldogs, and the Aggies had become bowl eligible last week with a win over the San Jose State Spartans and couldn’t improve their postseason prospects a whole lot.
In the end, the outcome was essentially as expected, as Boise State came away with a 42-23 victory to finish the regular season undefeated in Mountain West play and 9-3 overall.
Utah State, meanwhile, finished the regular season 6-6. There is a small chance that the Aggies don’t get invited to a bowl, although it’s all but assured.
Despite the 19-point difference in the final score, the Aggies did display the kind of grit in the second half that they’ve shown over the last six weeks or so that allowed them to dig out of a 1-4 start to get bowl eligible.
Playing shorthanded, Utah State trailed 21-0 until just a few seconds prior to halftime before charging back to trail by just five at 28-23 with a very real shot of taking the lead with less than 90 seconds to play before things fell apart and Boise State scored two more touchdowns.
Despite the fight, and more accurately perhaps because of it, Aggies head coach Blake Anderson expressed frustration after the contest.
“Disappointed for the guys, not in ‘em,” Anderson said. “We battled all day. Made too many mistakes to beat a good football team, but you gotta be proud of fighting back, making it a one-score game, having a chance to go down and potentially go ahead with as difficult as it was to move the ball early and as talented as they are in all areas of their football team.
“With as many guys as we had out and as many new guys as we had playin’, really, really proud of how the team fought. You’d like to finish there. You’d like to finish and find a way to get the ball in the end zone and see what happens with two minutes left on the clock. We’ve got to do that, and that’s where, if we’re going to win championships here, that’s a team you gotta beat in that situation and we didn’t today, but the effort was phenomenal.”
That all essentially encapsulated the game for Utah State, which began at 10 a.m. local time. Neither team got anything going in a scoreless first quarter, and that continued for most of the second for the Aggies as they fell behind by three touchdowns and appeared as if they wouldn’t provide much of a fight against the Broncos.
Offensively they couldn’t move the ball and were terrible on third down, defensively the secondary allowed too many deep passes to the point that that’s all Boise State started to try to do and there were multiple significant miscues on special teams.
But with 4:37 left before halftime, the Aggies got the ball back after Boise State’s third touchdown. Initially it appeared as if the drive would be like all the ones before it for Utah State, as Anderson’s squad faced an early fourth and 1.
On that play, however, quarterback Cooper Legas ran for 20 yards, which was the catalyst for an eventual 3-yard touchdown run by Terrell Vaughn as the second quarter clock expired to make the score 21-7 at intermission.
“It was needed,” said Vaughn of the touchdown. “We saw the coverage. They were playing well though. I just saw the coverage and just took advantage at that point and just knew that I was quicker than (the defender) and just took it.”
The Aggies carried that momentum into the second half with a great opening drive, but it stalled at the 5-yard line when tight end Broc Lane dropped a pass in the end zone from Vaughn on a trick play and Utah State had to settle for a field goal.
The Broncos responded with a 10-play touchdown drive to push the lead to 28-10, and it appeared the Aggies had given their best punch.
They forced a Boise State three-and-out, then scored on the fourth play of the next drive when Legas and Vaughn connected for a 75-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage for Utah State all season.
After another Broncos three-and-out that spanned the end of the third quarter and early moments of the fourth, the Aggies went on a 13-play, 88-yard drive that saw both the run and pass game suddenly be successful and was punctuated by an 8-yard touchdown run from Calvin Tyler Jr. with 7:59 to play to make it 28-23.
Utah State opted for a 2-point conversion try and it failed, but the Aggies certainly had momentum.
That was even more the case when they got the ball back with 5:28 to play, with a chance to take the lead on the line.
“Obviously we made a couple of busts earlier in the game, but I think as the game went on, guys started calming down, settling down and making plays,” safety Hunter Reynolds said of the defense.
As had been the case so often in the second half, Utah State marched down the field and arrived at the 11-yard line with 2:21 to play.
That’s when things suddenly fell apart for the Aggies. Legas threw an incomplete pass on second and 6, and then lost three yards on third down.
Facing fourth and 9, Legas threw an interception, and on the second play of the ensuing Boise State drive, quarterback Taylen Green snuck to the outside and scampered 91 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-23 and seal the deal.
A pick-six from Legas to Seyi Oladipo at the end added to the difference.
“We executed well,” Vaughn said of the fateful drive that started so well. “Great play calls. (Boise State’s) just a great football team, honestly. Just came down to that point. They were well-prepared for that stuff, too.”
Although his team came up short, Anderson was proud of the group’s effort and hopes it pays off moving forward as Utah State awaits its postseason fate and then eyes 2023.
“So many guys sick, so many guys hurt,” Anderson said of his team. “So many other guys stepped up all across the field in every area, so beyond proud and pleased. Great snaps for those guys in the future, but today it’s a loss and it hurts. The score doesn’t even indicate how they played. I hate that they get a couple scores there late and make it look ugly, ‘cause that’s not what that game was.
“We’ll hopefully heal up and get some guys back for bowl game and try to get to 7-6. That’s the goal. Get back safely and heal up, get ready for a bowl game and then find a way to get to 7-6.”