It was anything but pretty against New Mexico, so how did Utah State manage to win?
The Aggies struggled most of the game, but made enough plays, particularly on special teams, to come away with a 27-10 win over the Lobos
Utah State head coach Blake Anderson could not get the words out fast enough.
The Aggies had just defeated the New Mexico Lobos 27-10 Saturday afternoon in Logan, improving to 4-5 on the season and 3-2 in Mountain West Conference play.
With the win, USU remained alive in the hunt for bowl eligibility, not to mention the conference title race.
And yet, Anderson was quick to admit — and that might be underselling it — that Utah State did not play well. At all really.
“It was all pretty bad,” Anderson said. “A lot of ugly.”
Was it ever.
Offensively, Utah State played one of its worst games of the season, especially since Cooper Legas took over as the starting quarterback in late September.
The Aggies mustered just 280 yards of total offense, 149 through the air and 131 on the ground; committed 12 penalties for 113 yards; were 3 of 17 on third down; and only found the end zone once on offense.
Even that one score was fortuitous, as it came on a short field gifted when New Mexico kick returner Luke Wysong took the ball out of the end zone on the opening kickoff for just a yard after having been all but begged by a teammate to take the touchback.
Legas, in his return from concussion protocol, was flummoxed by the Lobos’ defense, and completed only 13 of 27 pass attempts, was sacked four times and hurried twice.
“They did a good job keeping Coop confused,” Anderson said. “There were times he struggled with all the movement. That defense is built to get you off schedule, keep you behind the chains. Confuse and frustrate you.
“That is the first time Coop has seen that and he was frustrated all day. We just didn’t break anything open like we needed to to gain rhythm and create tempo.”
The Aggies’ rushing attack didn’t do much to alleviate the pressure on the junior quarterback, as freshman Robert Briggs led the team with 82 yards on 19 carries and senior Calvin Tyler Jr. didn’t play the second half after displaying concussion-like symptoms.
Defensively, despite surrendering only 10 total points, the Aggies weren’t much better. Tackling was a struggle, particularly in the first half, and USU looked lifeless for a good portion of the game before coming alive in the second half.
UNM rushed for 216 yards, routinely carving up the Aggies’ front seven. Lobos running back Nate Jones rushing for 146 yards and a score, while quarterback Justin Holaday added an additional 63 yards (it was 86 without sack yardage).
“There were a lot of instances where we were missing tackles and guys weren’t doing their job,” Aggies safety Hunter Reynolds said.
So how did Utah State manage to win the game, and by 17 points no less?
Look no further than special teams.
On a miserable day for the Aggies’ offense and defense, special teams made plays time and again, with place kicker Connor Coles accounting for 15 of the Aggies’ 27 total points.
He wasn’t alone, though. Punter Stephen Kotsanlee and cornerback Jamie Nance each made game-changing special teams plays, giving the Aggies the boost they needed.
“What a win,” Anderson said. “What a win. Do what you’ve got to. Fake punt, fake field goal. Whatever bullet you’ve got. With the weather what it was, with as many young guys playing, we felt like we needed to give ourselves every possibility to steal a possession here and there. That was what we needed. Really proud of the guys.
“A lot of ugly, but made plays that we had to to win and overcame a tough day. Really proud. That gets us one step closer to where we want to build and hopefully we can build on it.”
Coles was the headliner. The graduate senior kicker wasn’t perfect — he missed a 41-yard field goal attempt late in the first quarter — but he connected on two tries, was perfect on extra points and ran for his first career touchdown.
The touchdown was a surprise to most, though not Coles. The Aggies installed the play in practice leading up to the game, and had had success.
“It was working really well all week in practice,” Coles said. “I was asking my special teams coordinator (Nick Paremski) if the hole would be that big on game day and he said he thought it would be.”
Coles never actually thought he’d score a touchdown in his career, though, until it actually happened.
“I never even asked. I didn’t think it was in the cards,” Coles said. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
The fake field goal couldn’t have come at a better time. Utah State had just moved the ball 82 yards down the field — the offense’s longest drive of the day and one of just two drives that went for 70-plus yards.
A field goal would have tied the game at 10 points apiece, but the touchdown gave USU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“Well-executed and well-designed play,” Anderson said. “We watched a lot of tape and felt good about it. I thought the kids executed it perfectly.”
Time and again, the Aggies made well-timed plays on special teams, including a first down run on a fake punt by Kotsanlee and a fumble recovery on a punt by Nance.
The former didn’t lead to a score, but the latter led to a Coles field goal that increased the Aggies’ advantage.
Eventually, USU’s success on special teams even bled into the other phases of the game, with Reynolds returning a New Mexico fumble for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, his first career touchdown and USU’s first defensive score since 2019.
“We put a lot of pride in special teams, always have,” Anderson said. “Just felt like we had some strategic things that would be beneficial today.
“You call them and they work and you are a hero. Call them and they don’t and everybody is going to think you are an idiot. I thought they were necessary at the time and well-executed. Everybody did a great job and the kids did exactly what we asked them to in those situations.”
Because of it, Utah State’s goals for the season largely remain alive, with three weeks to go.
“We didn’t play great today,” Anderson said. “We didn’t play perfect, but we found a way to win. We will take every one we can get, regardless of what it looks like.”