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It took a game for the books — good and bad — but Utah State is bowl eligible

The Aggies defeated the New Mexico Lobos 44-41 in double overtime Friday night to finish the regular season 6-6.

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Utah State quarterback Levi Williams (16) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Vasha Hunt, Associated Press

Senior defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka, a veteran of 45-plus contests as a Utah State Aggie, called it a top 3 game of his career without the slightest bit of hesitation.

Utah State head coach Blake Anderson described it as anything but pretty, even ugly, but thought it was also a game that engendered a “wow” and multiple what-a-games, with a few amazings thrown in for good measure.

Senior quarterback Levi Williams, who only a week ago was QB3 for the Aggies, noted that it was “super fun,” storybook even, with a “Hollywood ending.”

All three were accurate in their descriptions.

Utah State’s regular season finale against New Mexico, a 44-41 double overtime triumph, included some of the worst football played at the FBS level this season.

That isn’t hyperbole.

The Aggies and Lobos combined to commit 28 penalties for 338 total yards, which is 92 more yards than Iowa has averaged per game on offense this season.

It was by far the most penalized college football game this year, besting the previous ugliest contest between Colorado and Colorado State.

“What a game to fight for bowl eligibility and fight for survival. It was a great game and we definitely earned a bowl game. We all played hard, guys were getting hurt but other people stepped up. We did just enough to survive and earn another game. So very happy with that.” — USU defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka

And yet, there were spectacular plays on both sides, including some of the best single game outings this year.

Williams, starting for the injured Cooper Legas and McCae Hillstead, had a game to remember.

He finished the night 16 of 27 for 198 yards and two touchdowns throwing the ball, all of which were highs for his Utah State career.

He also rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns and, yes, those were again highs during his time at Utah State.

Williams finished the game with five touchdowns, tying a memorable showing he had while serving as Wyoming’s quarterback in the 2021 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

And more importantly for the Aggies, he scored the game-winning touchdown on a mad scramble. It was a play that should have ended in a loss of yardage, yet Williams turned a dropped snap into a 13-yard game-winning scamper.

“I don’t even know what to say about that,” Anderson said. “Ball on the ground and the big guy out-runs everybody and finds a way to rumble into the endzone.”

It wasn’t just Williams, though.

On the New Mexico side, running back Jacory Croskey-Merritt rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. And those numbers fail to convey his impact as he routinely evaded tackles and turned would-be stops into major gains for the Lobos.

“He’s a great running back,” Motu’apuaka said. “A super hard runner and he played his part.”

And Utah State wide receiver Jalen Royals etched his name into program history, tying Tracy Jenkins for the most touchdown receptions in a single season by an Aggie, with 14, thanks to a pair of touchdown receptions on Friday.

Oh and with another 50-plus touchdown reception, Royals remains the FBS leader with seven touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more. And he became the 13th Aggie pass catcher to record 1,000 receiving yards in a single season.

The list could go on and on.

USU linebacker MJ Tafisi did something no Aggie has done since 1999 (eight consecutive double-digit tackle games) and New Mexico freshman quarterback Devon Dampier had a career day with touchdowns in the air and on the ground, despite splitting time with senior Dylan Hopkins.

All of the remarkable performances put together led to a thrilling double-overtime battle between two Mountain West Conference foes, with the Aggies once again coming out on top

(USU has now won seven straight games against New Mexico).

“What a finish,” Anderson said. “To get to six (wins), it was not easy and a lot of things could have kept it from happening tonight but I gotta give the guys credit for battling, and New Mexico too.

“Danny (Gonzales) and his crew played hard, they played physical and battled. We found a way to win. They don’t ask how (you won), they ask how many (you won) and we’ll take it.”

Friday’s win was especially notable given how beat up the Aggies are. Neither Legas nor Hillstead had any chance to play, per Anderson, and as the game went on USU players began to drop like flies, with many failing to finish the game due to various injuries.

That put more and more of the load on Williams’ shoulders, but the aspiring future Navy SEAL shrugged off any and all praise postgame, despite carrying Utah State to victory and bowl eligibility.

“I’m so proud of our team,” Williams said. “Without them, those numbers (in reference to his career-outing) don’t mean anything. I play for them. I’d run through a wall for those guys.”

Now 6-6 on the season, the Aggies are bowl eligible for the third consecutive season under Anderson and are in the position to play in their 12th bowl game in the last 14 years, as well as the 17th bowl game in school history. 

USU’s postseason future won’t be known for more than a week as bowl destinations are announced following conference championship weekend, but, for Anderson, this particular Aggie team becoming bowl eligible is evidence that what he and his staff are attempting to do in Logan is working.

“Every kid you talk to in recruiting wants to know if you are going to go to bowls and if you are going to play for championships,” Anderson said. “I’ve been a head coach for 10 years now and have gone to nine bowls and won three titles. I want to be able to sit down with every kid that we talk to and say, ‘Hey, we may not win it every year, but we are going to stay competitive. Even in our down years, even when we are rebuilding, we are going to go bowling. We are going to play somewhere against somebody.’ Not every program can say that.”

Anderson acknowledged the rising expectations of the USU fanbase, expectations reset in part because of the Aggies’ 2021 MW championship in Anderson’s first year.

He also acknowledged that he maybe should have given Williams more run this year, given the talent on display against the Lobos.

But as Anderson has attested to many times this season — or at least tried to convince observers of — this was a major rebuilding year and to become bowl eligible is something to be genuinely happy about.

“This is year one in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “And any head coach and program in year one that had to replace 40 players in the offseason would be happy to be able to go to a bowl. A lot of teams aren’t (going bowling). I think keeping that perspective and realizing just how special this group is that they could battle to get that done, even when it was not easy. ... That says a lot about our brand, our logo, our fanbase and our program in general.”

Whether or not bowl eligibility means all that, one thing is certain, Utah State is now eligible for play in the postseason, and the 2023 Aggie football season will continue.

“What a game to fight for bowl eligibility and fight for survival,” Motu’apuaka said. “It was a great game and we definitely earned a bowl game. We all played hard, guys were getting hurt but other people stepped up. We did just enough to survive and earn another game. So very happy with that.”