Utah State still isn’t a good football team.
Two weeks removed from a dismal loss to Weber State, the Aggies lost again Saturday night in Logan, falling 34-24 to the UNLV Rebels.
At 1-3 overall and 0-1 in Mountain West Conference play, the Aggies continue to trend in the wrong direction and don’t really resemble a competitive MW team, nor a bowl deserving one.
For most of the game against the Rebels, the Aggies were undisciplined and unreliable.
Utah State finished with 11 penalties for 93 total yards, many of which were backbreaking personal fouls, as emotions ran too hot.
The Aggies outgained the Rebels 421 total yards to 320, but when they truly needed to convert, they failed more often than not.
Utah State converted only 4 of 13 third down tries and was 2 of 5 on fourth down. While UNLV was a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone, Utah State finished a less than stellar 2 of 4.
Then there were the turnovers.
UNLV was miscue-free — Utah State had a chance at an interception, but it was dropped deep in USU territory by striker Kaleo Neves, which allowed the Rebels to convert a field goal — while USU quarterback Logan Bonner threw five interceptions and fumbled the ball away once.
But wait, there’s more.
The Aggies’ rushing attack was largely ineffective, with only true freshman Robert Briggs rushing for more than 3.6 yards per carry.
Utah State ultimately rushed for less than 100 yards (96) on 32 rushes.
Utah State’s passing game accounted for 325 yards and three touchdowns, but the wide receiver corps once again failed to regularly win one-on-one matchups, and much of the damage (as far as yards go) came in the fourth quarter, when UNLV had mostly put the game out of reach.
Throw in assistant coaches jawing with referees and moments of uninspired play calling in key situations, and while it wasn’t a blowout like previous losses to Alabama and Weber State, it was nonetheless another poor showing by the Aggies.
“We just didn’t execute well enough on offense to really have a chance to win,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “We had some yards but couldn’t finish, and turnovers kill you. ...
“We have to execute and we didn’t in the places that we needed to. Made a few plays, a few big plays, but (UNLV) didn’t turnover and we did. We couldn’t finish when we had to. We came up short, really too little too late.”
And yet, for the first time since the season opener against UConn, there might be hope in Logan. Or at least glimmers of it.
Utah State’s offense showed signs of life, which, outside of an outlier second quarter against UConn, hadn’t existed this season.
Bonner looked the most comfortable he had all year, and while five interceptions is certainly excessive, more than one of those turnovers was excusable.
It can even be argued that one or two of Bonner’s turnovers were somewhat beneficial, like one he threw while targeting Brian Cobbs. It was an attempt to take the top of the Rebels’ defense and perhaps not so coincidentally, after that throw, the Aggies had more success with underneath routes.
The Aggies’ offensive line didn’t surrender a single sack all game, and gave Bonner plenty of time in the pocket most of the night.
Multiple Aggie receivers flashed their potential, including Terrell Vaughn, who finished with 74 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Entering the game, Utah State was one of just 11 FBS programs without an offensive play of 40-plus yards this season, but that isn’t the case anymore after Cobbs had a 44-yard reception and Justin McGriff a 40-yarder.
USU even got its tight ends involved, as Broc Lane finished with three catches for 14 yards.
The Aggies’ defense, meanwhile, was routinely placed in difficult situations thanks to the many turnovers, yet managed to limit a pretty prolific UNLV offense.
The Rebels entered the game with a strong rushing attack but rushed for only 103 yards on 42 carries.
At no point in the game did it feel like Utah State couldn’t compete defensively, which couldn’t have been said in earlier losses.
“I thought the defense did a really good job keeping us in it for a while,” Anderson said.
And while the penalties were bad, they were at least demonstrative evidence that Utah State hasn’t given up on the season. The passion isn’t gone yet, even if it was misplaced.
“This group of guys is still trying to get better,” Anderson said. “I am extremely proud of how hard we played, the passion that we played with. ... That is something to build on. If we had had that two weeks ago (against Weber State) I think we would have won the game. We didn’t, but it showed tonight and it gave us a chance to compete with a good team.
“I think (UNLV head coach) Marcus (Arroyo) has a really good football team right now. You have to give them credit in the win, but I was pleased with what I saw. Our response from last game, with how poorly we played, how lifeless we were at times, that changed over the last two weeks. That is a step in the right direction.”
Optimism isn’t limited to Anderson.
Vaughn might be an eternal optimist, or blessed with irrational confidence, but after the Aggies’ showing he expressed hope for the future. The near future, not the abstract distant one.
“We did better than last week,” Vaughn said. “They (UNLV) were ready, but I think we took a step.”
Defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka was more grounded than Vaughn, but nonetheless remains hopeful.
“We just have to get better,” he said. “There are a lot of good things that we did. I’m very proud of the passion that we played with, but there were a lot of mistakes, so we have to get better.”
There remains plenty of room for improvement for the Aggies beyond the obvious, too.
When effective, Anderson’s offense, whether at Utah State or previously at Arkansas State, wears down opponents with the sheer number of plays run, but that simply hasn’t happened yet this season.
“We just aren’t running the ball as efficiently as we needed. We aren’t throwing and catching it either,” Anderson said. “You have to be able to extend drives, and we are struggling to sustain drives.”
Forced turnovers have also been rare for the Aggies, despite being a calling card of defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda’s scheme/philosophy.
And of course wins have been wanting.
But for perhaps the first time this year, Utah State showed signs of growth in a game, even if the Aggies still aren’t a good football team.