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The comeback Aggies haven’t gone anywhere

It’s a new season, but Utah State is much the same after rallying for yet another victory.

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Justin McGriff (10) from the Utah Aggies scores a touch down against the UConn Huskies at the Maverik Stadium in Logan on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. The Aggies won 31-20.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

The 2021 season was supposed to be in the rearview mirror.

The 2022 season had arrived, with the Utah State Aggies hosting the UConn Huskies at Maverik Stadium in Logan Saturday in a Week 0 matchup.

The Aggies were a new team, with new faces, new goals, new hopes and dreams.

Last year was supposed to be nothing more than a memory.

It turns out change can be rather difficult, though.

For the seventh time since the start of last season, the Aggies had to rally from a double-digit deficit to pull out a victory.

Utah State (1-0) defeated UConn 31-20, and by the end — on paper — things looked good.

Quarterback Logan Bonner threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns, completing 69% of his passes.

Running back Calvin Tyler Jr. had a career day, carrying the ball 33 times for 161 yards, both career highs.

True freshman running back Robert Briggs had a breakout performance in his first collegiate game, rushing for 85 yards and a score.

The Aggies’ receiving corps had four players record at least 40 yards through the air, led by Brian Cobbs (78 yards and a touchdown) Kyle Van Leeuwen (54 yards and a touchdown) and Justin McGriff (53 yard and a touchdown).

Defensively, safeties Hunter Reynolds and Ike Larsen each recorded an interception. Tackles were up across the board, with linebacker MJ Tafisi setting a career high with 10, including two tackles for loss.

And yet.

“It is a win,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “That is the best thing I can say. Definitely not a polished win. We have a lot of things to work on.”

Perhaps most important among them being how to avoid the slow starts that have become the Aggies’ calling card during Anderson’s time in Logan.

“We found a way to start from behind again,” Anderson said. “I guess that is just going to be my tenure here. We will find a way to dig a hole and then find a way to battle back.

“The guys didn’t panic. Very similar to last season, the guys kept working. Give the defense a tremendous amount of credit, helping us rally. We can build off this. I’d rather be here sitting talking about a victory that was ugly than the other thing.”

The slow start was on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Utah State couldn’t establish any sort of rhythm early, and really, outside of a 24-point second quarter, it was largely ineffective.

Bonner, a record-breaking quarterback a season ago, was off nearly as much as he was on — stats notwithstanding —overthrowing Van Leeuwen or Terrell Vaughn as often as he put the ball right on Cobbs or McGriffs’ hands.

The Aggies took to the ground more often than not and had success with Tyler Jr. and Briggs, but there were also key mistakes, including a Tyler Jr. fumble and another by Pailate Makakona.

Tyler Jr.’s fumble in particular led into a UConn field goal that had the Huskies within four points of Utah State — 24-20 — with 10 minutes to play.

“We have to work on ball security, getting two hands on the ball when there’s contact,” Tyler Jr. said. “Obviously I failed on one drive to do that. I’m happy we won, but I was sad a little bit. If we hadn’t of won, this would’ve been the worst day ever.”

Utah State’s defense wasn’t blameless either. The Aggies were gashed on the ground early, as UConn running back Nate Carter reeled off runs of 52 and 44 yards en route to a 190-yard performance.

Some of the problem lay in the unknown that was UConn. With nearly half the Huskies’ team new from a season ago, it took a while for the Aggies to adjust.

More than that though, Utah State simply wasn’t where it was supposed to be defensively.

“Guys were sticking their nose in places they didn’t belong and were getting out-gapped,” Anderson said. “Having to adjust to what we saw (from UConn) was a big part of it.

“The guys were excited and ready to play, and a lot of their (UConn’s) big plays were cutting back behind the grain. Over-pursuit created holes on the back side and that is tough to defend.”

Added to that, in the moments when the Aggies were in the right place at the right time, tackling was an issue.

“We started out missing too many tackles,” senior cornerback Ajani Carter said. “That is what made us start out slow. We have to be able to tackle. That is football. When you don’t (tackle), things like 14-0 happen.”

Slowly but surely Utah State turned things around, and the interceptions by Reynolds and Larsen, as well as a forced fumble by Carter — recovered by defensive end Daniel Grzesiak — helped Utah State score 24 unanswered points, while holding UConn to just six points through the final three quarters.

“I liked the fact that we didn’t panic,” Anderson said. “We were down 14 to a team everyone on the planet expected us to beat. It would have been easy to get down on ourselves and start pointing fingers.

“We ran the ball better (today) than we did at any time last season and we protected the quarterback well today. He (Bonner) got banged up a couple of times, but nothing compared to a bad game last year.

“And the defense created turnovers.”

At 1-0, the Aggies have now won 13 of their last 14 home openers.

“We were tired but we finished well,” Anderson said. “There is a lot to be thankful for, but by no means are we near where we need to be to compete for this thing. We have to keep improving.”

Which, in truth, is what the Aggies did with regularity during their run to the Mountain West Conference championship last season

So maybe it is alright if 2022 is a little bit similar to 2021 and the cardiac Aggies are back.