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It wasn’t exactly pretty, but Utah State is a win away from becoming bowl eligible

The Aggies defeated Nevada 41-24 and improved to 5-5 this season, following a 1-3 start to the year

SHARE It wasn’t exactly pretty, but Utah State is a win away from becoming bowl eligible

Utah State wide receiver Terrell Vaughn stiff arms Nevada defensive back Richard Toney Jr. (23) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

Following a 45-38 loss to James Madison on Sept. 23, it didn’t seem all that likely that Utah State football was going to become bowl eligible this season.

Yes, the Aggies had played near to the level of most of their competition — Iowa, Air Force and the aforementioned Dukes — to that point, but a 1-3 record didn’t bode well for postseason hopes.

Not with the majority of Mountain West Conference play ahead.

Following back-to-back loses to Fresno State and San Jose State almost a month later, Utah State was in even more dire straits, needing to win three of its final four games to make it to a bowl game for the 11th time in the last 13 seasons.

And yet, bowl eligibility is now a single win away.

Thanks to a double-overtime win over San Diego State last weekend, followed by a 41-24 victory over Nevada on Saturday afternoon in Logan, Utah State is a win away from earning a bowl berth with games remaining against Boise State and New Mexico.

“It’s hard to really honestly explain (how important a bowl game would be),” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “It’s huge. Huge for recruiting and momentum for the program. When you consider the schedule we’ve played, just how good the first half of our schedule was, to kind of put you in a hole, all while you’re trying to teach 40 new players how to play against squads that we had to go up against.

“... We knew we had to make every opportunity count so I think getting six or seven (wins) would be huge considering this is like a Year One in a lot of ways for us.”

Added Aggie running back Rahsul Faison: “It (would be) huge for us. I mean, this season was a grind. We had a really tough schedule. We were figuring everybody out. We’d never played with each other, just a lot of new guys here. I feel like we’re starting to come together each and every week. We’re getting better, so it (would) definitely be a good step forward for us.”

The win over Nevada was anything but pretty, though, proving that this Aggie team still has some growing to do. They definitely don’t have it all figured out, even with the season drawing to a close and a bowl game a real possibility.

Utah State handily defeated the Wolf Pack — per the final score — but it was a miscue-laden performance against one of the worst teams at the FBS level.

Some quick hits:

  • USU finished with 13 penalties for 126 yards, and it could have been worse.
  • The Aggies turned the ball over twice, one of which was returned for a pick-six only to be called back for penalty. Nevada proceeded to drive down the field and score quickly anyway, though.
  • Utah State’s defense struggled against an offense that entered the game ranked No. 120 nationally in total offense and No. 126 in scoring offense, giving up 24 points and 347 yards (183 on the ground, another 164 through the air).
  • The Aggies’ defense made Nevada running back Sean Dollars look much better than the No. 171-rated running back in college football (according to total rushing yards per game), letting him run for 82 yards and a touchdown while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Those 82 yards on the ground were nearly twice his season average (43.1 ypg).
  • Nevada quarterback AJ Bianco, newly made the team’s starter, was made to look quite serviceable by the USU defense. He finished with 161 yards passing and two touchdowns (and one interception), along with 74 yards rushing.

The penalties were the biggest issue for Anderson, given the Aggies were plagued by penalties to begin the season but had made solid progress on that front over the course of the year.

“Frustrated with the penalties,” he said. “Thirteen penalties is ridiculous. We’ll watch (the film) and see. I don’t know how many of them are legitimate or self inflicted, but it’s way too many.”

Turnovers were also a point of interest to Anderson, with quarterback Cooper Legas throwing two interceptions in the game.

The first came via a batted ball, which Anderson was quick to excuse. “The batted ball, those can happen,” he said.

The second interception was simply a poor decision from Legas, though, trying to thread the ball into the hands of wide receiver Micah Davis despite double coverage.

“Would like to avoid the second one,” Anderson said.

The penalties, on offense specifically, really disrupted Utah State, even if the final stats don’t exactly show it.

USU finished with 474 yards of offense and scored five touchdowns, but one of those was a defensive score — a memorable 63 yard pick-six by defensive tackle Seni Tuiaki — and another came via Faison’s legs alone, as he accounted for all 57 of USU’s yards on a touchdown drive towards the end of the third quarter.

Rhythm on offense was simply hard to come by.

“It was a grind. Today, it was a grind,” Anderson said. “When you have that many penalties, there is going to be no rhythm. We did a relatively good job on third downs when we needed to, which was helpful. We were able to move the chains and stay on the field a little longer than we have in some previous weeks. That was good.

“It’s frustrating when you’re looking at penalty after penalty after penalty, though. We’ve got to find a way to eliminate those. We’ve done a relatively good job for a while today.”

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Utah State was victorious in a game it needed and multiple players had career days.

Faison had his best game in an Aggie uniform after transferring from Snow College during the offseason.

The Pennsylvania native rushed for 181 yards and a touchdown on 22 rushes, carrying a struggling Aggies’ offense much of the day.

Tuiaki, as mentioned, had a pick-six to remember, scooping the ball out of the air following a hit on Bianco by linebacker Anthony Switzer and carrying it untouched to the other end of the field.

It was the first career touchdown of Tuiaki’s football career. At any level of football.

The big man couldn’t help but smile postgame while reveling in his success.

“It’s a great experience,” he said. “I still can’t believe it at the same time, you know? I am lost for words, right?”

There were other bright spots for Utah State as well.

  • The 24 points allowed were tied for the fewest given up by the Aggies this season.
  • Linebacker MJ Tafisi had 12 tackles, giving him six straight double-digit tackle outings.
  • Cornerback Michael Anyanwu recovered his first fumble of the season.
  • The Aggies tied their season-high four sacks, with one from Switzer, and the others from defensive end Paul Fitzgerald, defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka and defensive end Blaine Spires.
  • Utah State has now scored 30-plus points in five of its last six games.
  • The Aggies improved to 8-2 during the month of November under head coach Blake Anderson. 

Most importantly, ugly performance or not, Utah State is one step closer to bowl eligibility.

Something that was hard to believe possible for this Aggie team only a month or two ago.

“I am proud of how we kind of regrouped there and found a way to kind of stretch that thing out,” Anderson said. “Getting to six (wins) is hard. We had to get this one to really put ourselves in good position to get there. Hopefully we can take the next step next week.”