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Utah State’s season ends in dismal, disappointing fashion

The Aggies were handled by the Memphis Tigers in the First Responder Bowl, outplayed and outgunned

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Memphis running back Jevyon Ducker (8) runs the ball for a touchdown during the second half of the First Responder Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah State, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Dallas.

Sam Hodde, AP

The 2022 college football season is over for Utah State, and the ending was about as disappointing as they come.

The Aggies were soundly defeated by the Memphis Tigers 38-10 Tuesday in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl, played on the campus of SMU in Dallas, Texas.

Soundly doesn’t really do it justice, either.

Utah State (6-7) was completely and thoroughly outplayed by Memphis (7-6), in practically every facet of the game.

Memphis handily outgained USU on offense, 430 yards to 261. The Tigers threw for 284 yards, while the Aggies totaled just 135.

The Tigers also rushed for more yards (146 to 126), had nearly twice as many first downs (26 to 15), were better on third down (7 of 14 compared to 5 of 13), ran more plays (76 to 58), forced more turnovers (three interceptions compared to one fumble), and well, the list could go on and on.

Outside of the first and third quarters, when it can be argued that USU played Memphis close to even, the Tigers were simply in a different class than the Aggies.

“All in all, physically we did not match up well against them and did not play our best ball,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said.

“Just could not create enough offense to really give ourselves a chance to win. Really didn’t have the manpower in some areas, or the size and power to get that done.”

Put another way, by Aggie running back Calvin Tyler Jr.: “They were just the better team today and we needed to do everything right to win. Unfortunately things didn’t go our way.”

Utah State was in the game at times. The Aggies trailed by only three points at the end of the first quarter, a deficit that was quickly erased by a Connor Coles field goal.

After that, though, Memphis scored 21 unanswered points, as quarterback Seth Henigan carved up the Aggies’ secondary again and again (Henigan finished the game with 284 yards passing and three touchdowns).

“We did not cover well,” Anderson said. “Gave up too many explosive throws. We did not cover well in one-on-one situations and stayed behind the chains, while they stayed in our backfield most of the second quarter.”

And while Memphis’ offense had its way with USU’s defense, the Aggies’ offense couldn’t return the favor, a problem that lasted all game long outside of the drive that led to Coles’ field goal and a second half drive that led to the Aggies’ lone touchdown of the day.

“We could not get anything going offensively at all,” Anderson said. “It was anemic. ... The inability to create any rhythm at all (was a problem). Other than the first drive and the drive when we scored the touchdown, there was no rhythm the rest of the day. We looked confused.

“I thought (quarterback Cooper Legas) struggled to see things that were coming open downfield and we struggled to protect at times. There was no consistency, and that is something we need to find. It has been a frustrating year offensively, when you consider what we were able to do a year ago. Compared to what our offense looked like this year, it is night and day difference. That is a place we have to get better to be able to compete at the level we want to.”

Legas didn’t play the entire game — he was knocked out with a lower right leg injury — and struggled when he did play, accounting for only 59 yards of offense, 35 through the air and 24 on the ground.

Freshman Bishop Davenport didn’t fare much better, although he did lead the Aggies to their lone touchdown, a 44-yard reception by wide receiver Brian Cobbs.

Outside of Tyler Jr., who rushed for 79 yards and became the 11th player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards in their USU career, the Aggies’ offense could not do much of anything at all.

“We couldn’t sustain anything offensively,” Anderson said. “The turnovers, the sacks, the plays that kind of stalled out for us, we were behind the chains way too much.

“With the good team we were playing against, with a physical big group of guys, we really had very few explosive plays all day. We needed to play better offensively than we did today to win, and honestly better than we did all season with the exception of a couple games.”

The only real bright spot for Utah State was the defensive front, which recorded season highs in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (14), though Anderson was quick to point out inconsistencies for that group too.

“We played in spurts really, really well,” he said. “Down the stretch we didn’t hold gaps well.”

Linebacker AJ Vongphachanh had arguably the best single-game performance of his career — he finished with a career-high 2.5 tackles and a team-high nine tackles — but he too was quick to point out the Aggies’ failings.

“They took advantage of the one-on-ones. We were just not executing,” Vongphachanh said. “A lot of those big plays, I take a lot of responsibility. I feel like I could have helped guys more, helped them to be in better position.”

Utah State was shorthanded — the time off between the regular season finale against Boise State and the bowl game helped the team recover from short-term injuries, but obviously not season-ending ones, which had depleted the Aggies on the defensive line — and continued to rely heavily on inexperienced youth.

Ultimately, though, Anderson believed his team was just physically outmatched by Memphis and needed to be perfect to win the game.

That obviously did not happen.

“They are big, well-built. We knew that,” Anderson said of Memphis. “They recruit big, are long on the edges and outside. We knew that was going to be a challenge, and most of the day that was a challenge we couldn’t overcome.

“We had what we had and we knew the matchup wasn’t in our favor. We knew we had to play perfectly to overcome that and we just didn’t.”