Utah State squandered a real opportunity against San Jose State
With a win against the Spartans, the Aggies would’ve been back at .500 with bowl eligibility likely. Now USU has real work to do to see the postseason
Utah State played perhaps its worst game of the season Saturday night in San Jose, California.
The Aggies have been up-and-down all season, particularly when you consider their first-quarter struggles, but never had they mostly been down in a game this year.
Even in their most lopsided loss of the season prior to Saturday — at Air Force — the Aggies were the better team for multiple quarters, or at least close to it.
Outside of some second-quarter bright spots against the Spartans, though, the Aggies were down and down often Saturday night. Thoroughly out-played, out-executed, out-everythinged.
“I’m about as disappointed as I could be in how we played,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “I don’t feel like we did anything well in any of the phases.”
Utah State lost to San Jose State 42-21 and the Aggies are now 3-5 overall and 1-3 in Mountain West Conference play.
Barring major upsets the remainder of the season, both by the Aggies themselves and across the conference landscape, conference title contention is out of reach for Utah State.
Bowl eligibility is now in question too, as USU must win three of its final four games if it wants to qualify for the postseason.
It could not have been a more ill-timed poor performance by Utah State, which also had its 10-game winning streak against San Jose State snapped.
“This was one we really needed to win,” Anderson said. “I felt like they were a much better team than their record indicated, they’d played a tough schedule just like we had.
“I knew coming here and playing was going to be difficult, but I don’t think we played well, in any phase. Never really made a game of it that we needed to.”
Mistakes reared their head again for the Aggies, be it turnovers on offense (USU finished with three turnovers to two for SJSU), or missed tackles and assignments on defense.
But where Utah State really lost the game against San Jose State was in the trenches.
The Spartans’ offensive and defensive lines soundly out-performed the Aggies’ fronts from start to finish.
Offensively, that meant quarterback McCae Hillstead, back in as a starter after missing two games due to concussion protocol, was hardly, if ever, comfortable in the pocket.
Hillstead carried the ball eight times in the game, and nearly every carry was a scramble for his life.
With little time to survey the field, Hillstead made mistakes, throwing two interceptions, and he couldn’t get the Aggies’ high-powered offense to run to its capabilities.
“We’ve struggled early against defensive fronts as everybody’s known,” Anderson said. “And so it’s been a little bit of a war of attrition. But tonight, at no point did we did we play like we’re capable of up front, and it made it really, really difficult to stay on schedule.”
The Aggies’ rushing attack couldn’t find any purchase either, no matter which back lined up in the backfield.
“We just struggled up front,” running back Rahsul Faison said. “We didn’t really get too much penetration going and we didn’t do a good job with as backs reading holes.”
With poor line play, Utah State couldn’t get the tempo on offense right, which meant San Jose State’s defense didn’t tire and the Aggies couldn’t generate the big game-changing plays they have been known for, or make the second half comeback they’ve become accustomed to making.
“We just never got a rhythm going,” Anderson said. “Way too many loss of yards plays, way too many guys losing up front. Even when we did move the ball downfield there was a lot of times we were having to scramble. We struggled to cover them up tonight.”
Defensively things didn’t go much better. In fact, you could say things went worse most of the time.
While USU’s defense did force a couple of turnovers — potential touchdown preventing takeaways — and had some success getting to SJSU quarterback Chevan Cordeiro in the backfield, those wins paled in comparison to the losses.
The Spartans proved nearly unstoppable on the ground, rushing for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
It was a combination of the Aggies’ defensive front being unable to get off blocks or fill in gaps, plus missed tackles throughout the linebacking corps and secondary.
Over and over again, Utah State defenders had chances to bring down Spartans and failed. Those missed tackles cost USU mightily, particularly on third down where SJSU went 7 of 12.
And with each missed tackle inside the box, the Aggies’ safeties got sucked into the middle of the field, which opened up the outside for both the Spartans’ rushing attack and for Cordeiro, who only threw for 113 yards but finished with three touchdown passes.
“We struggled to handle their movement,” Anderson said. “We struggled to handle their their offensive line. ... I thought they were more physical than us in every aspect, and when they are it’s going to be a long night.”
Defensive end Cian Slone thought the Aggies were well enough prepared for what they saw from San Jose State. They simply didn’t execute the plan.
“I thought if we just executed the plan we’d be alright,” Slone said. “We didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
Anderson put the blame for the poor performance on him and his coaching staff.
“Poor game, it starts with me. It is my fault. I’ve got to do a better job having them ready, and clearly we were not.”
But the reality was it was a complete poor performance across the board. Neither staff nor players were at their best Saturday night, and in a game that Utah State badly needed to win — with a road game remaining at San Diego State and a home contest against Boise State — the Aggies not only didn’t get it done, they were hardly in it at all.
“We’ve got to take the open week to get guys healthy,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to regroup and really dissect where we’re at and try to find a way to move forward in a positive way. (I’d) love to find a way to get this team bowl eligible, but right now we’ve just got to find a way to get a win.”