Only a couple of weeks ago, the Utah State Aggies appeared to be in trouble.
After a 1-3 start to the season, including losses to Iowa, Air Force and James Madison, bowl eligibility — at least the path to it — looked incredibly difficult. Plus, the Aggies appeared to be on the outs as far as the Mountain West Conference race went due to their loss to the Falcons.
Utah State was competitive in its loses, to be sure, but the Aggies’ first quarter struggles just looked like too much to overcome going forward. At least this season.
Coming off back-to-back wins now, though, including Saturday night’s 44-24 victory in Logan over conference rival Colorado State, things look and feel a great deal different for the Aggies.
Now 3-3 on the year and 1-1 in conference play, everything is possible for Utah State, including a bowl game and even contention for the conference championship.
What’s more, after the way USU defeated CSU there may even be room to hope that the Aggies could win the MW title game ... if they get there.
It was that kind of performance by the Aggies against the Rams.
Here are some of the numbers:
- Utah State trailed 17-0 in the first quarter, but then rallied to score 37 unanswered points before CSU scored with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
- The Aggies finished with 639 yards of offense, 387 through the air and 252 on the ground.
- Quarterback Cooper Legas, the starter once again with McCae Hillstead sidelined, threw for a career high 387 yards and four touchdowns, overcoming a brutal start during which he threw two interceptions.
- Three Utah State wide receivers finished with 100-plus yards receiving (Terrell Vaughn, Jalen Royals and Micah Davis) and each of them had at least one touchdown reception. Moreover, each had at least a 40-yard reception.
- Three Aggie running backs combined to rush for 274 yards, with Davon Booth leading the way with 141 yards and two rushing scores.
- Utah State forced five turnovers, snagged three interceptions and forced two fumbles. Safety Ike Larsen had two interceptions, defensive back Simeon Harris the other, while safety Devin Dye and defensive end Paul Fitzgerald each forced a fumble.
- The Aggies had fewer penalties than the Rams, more first downs and more third down conversions. They also ran more plays, had more time of possession and a much more electric offense.
It was Utah State’s most complete performance of the season against FBS competition, and the fulfillment of a lot of belief.
“I’m super proud of this group of guys to keep steady, stay the course and keep working,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said after the game. “We had a great week of prep. The energy in this building has been phenomenal all week. I’ve been talking to them about how close I thought we were. That’s easy to say. It’s much more difficult to believe when things aren’t going the way you want. But, clearly, you saw a more seasoned group. A group that stayed together. We still had to come from behind, but it’s a good football team. I felt like it was going to be a battle. I really did. I love the fact that as the game just continued, we got tougher. We got faster. More physical than they were.”
Anderson continued, “(I believed) if they could just hang in and not give up on the process, the process would start to take hold. That’s exactly what you saw. They have a really good football team. A really well-built football team. We just wanted to make it a mess. We wanted to make it a dogfight and our guys didn’t back down from that and played probably our best game of the season.”
Saturday’s performance wasn’t close to perfect, of course.
The Aggies were penalized seven times for 70 yards. Legas turned the ball over three times. USU’s offensive line — still a bit of a patchwork unit — struggled mightily at times and gave up six sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Throw in the loss of standout punter Stephen Kotsanlee, who Anderson said suffered a season-ending leg injury, and the Aggies have plenty to overcome going forward.
Legas in particular noted that he has to be better, despite a career-best outing.
“The offense started off bad, and a lot of that was me with my ball selection,” he said, before also taking the blame for the offensive line’s struggles.
“There were a couple of plays where I wasn’t checking the protection like I should have. So if a guy came free it was probably because I didn’t change the protection to have that guy accounted for.”
Anderson yet again bemoaned the Aggies’ slow start, as did Larsen.
“It’s sad to say, we’re kind of a second half team right now,” the sophomore safety said. “We’re trying to build that up to be the first half team and be able to go all four quarters.”
Andersen also singled out Legas, noting that the senior quarterback has a lot of work to do. Anderson also wouldn’t guarantee Legas playing time if/when Hillstead returns to the field after making his way through concussion protocol.
“He (Legas) didn’t go in the tank on me, which is good,” Anderson said. “He took a good butt-chewing and responded and went out and did what I asked him to do.”
Throw in the fact that Colorado State is still rebuilding, was playing a freshman quarterback and lost arguably its two best players — wide receiver Tory Horton and defensive lineman Mohammed Kamara — during the the game, and the Aggies’ win Saturday night wasn’t a cure-all for the team’s woes.
It was a step in the right direction, though, especially as the Mountain West succumbed to some of the chaos of college football this season, with previously unbeaten Fresno State losing to Wyoming and San Jose State losing to Boise State Saturday night.
“I don’t want them to be satisfied,” Anderson said. “I want them to keep working and keep working to get better. There’s still better football to be played. We turned the ball over too much and that’s something we have to fix, but there’s a lot of good things to build on tonight.”
That couldn’t be said about the Aggies throughout most, if not all, of September.
For now, at least, it looks as though Utah State has turned a corner. Right on time too with the majority of conference play still to come.