Count out this year’s Utah State Aggies if you’d like. You’ll probably end up wrong
The Aggies are 4-5 overall and well within striking distance for bowl eligibility after a double-overtime win over San Diego State
In some ways, make that a lot of ways, the 2023-24 Utah State Aggies make little sense.
Not simply from week to week, which has been an absolute roller coaster, nor even quarter by quarter, which in many games this year have felt something akin to watching a biplane fly across a hurricane.
No, almost from play to play this season, Utah State football has been completely and utterly unpredictable, regularly defying the expected.
So of course that is how the Aggies defeated the San Diego State Aztecs 32-24 in double-overtime Saturday night inside Snapdragon Stadium.
With all kinds of the unexpected, both good and bad.
First, there was the bad, and it came courtesy of the least expected: star safety Ike Larsen.
Larsen has been nothing but a standout for the Aggies this season — and last — but in the first of two overtime periods against the Aztecs, he messed up in a big way.
Putting it simply, Larsen did not cover San Diego State wide receiver Brionne Penny on a second-and-25 play, and his absence left Penny wide open behind the Aggie defense.
SDSU quarterback Jalen Mayden made USU and Larsen pay with an easy 27-yard touchdown pass to Penny that put the Aztecs up 24-17.
“I busted that coverage,” Larsen said. “I let my teammates down.”
And for a time, it appeared he may have cost his team a much needed road victory, especially after USU quarterback Cooper Legas was sacked on the first play from scrimmage for the Aggies’ offense in overtime.
That is when the good unpredictable happened, though. In waves.
To open, Legas found wide receiver Terrell Vaughn wide open for an 18-yard touchdown that was not all that dissimilar from the score by Penny.
Then the Aggies got the ball to start the second overtime period and two plays in, running back Robert Briggs rushed for a 20-yard touchdown, right up the middle of the SDSU defense.
Mind you, this was the same defense that had limited Utah State to under four yards per carry in the game, while racking up 12 tackles for loss.
“It felt amazing,” Briggs said. “When I seen it (a hole open in the middle of the Aztecs’ defense) I knew I had to get into the end zone.”
Utah State wasn’t finished, though. Following that score — which ended up being the game-winning touchdown — Larsen got a bit of redemption, intercepting Mayden to end the game.
“Super excited with the outcome,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “It was a tough night. Really nothing went well offensively early. Their (defensive) front created problems for us all night.”
Considering Utah State lost starting quarterback McCae Hillstead to injury midgame — Anderson said afterward it was an ankle injury that the USU coaching staff felt limited Hillstead’s mobility too much for him to safely play — and had struggled on the road all season, winning only one previous game, everything pointed to USU not winning Saturday night.
Especially not with the Aztecs playing one of their better games of the year, particularly, as Anderson noted, on defense.
These are the 2023 Aggies, though. Week after week, Utah State doesn’t do what is expected.
Saturday night that meant falling behind early, scoring 17 unanswered points on the road only to let the Aztecs rally back and force overtime before pulling out the win in a hostile environment.
Sometimes the unpredictability has meant that the Aggies lose a hard fought game against superior competition.
James Madison is one of only seven undefeated teams remaining in all of the FBS ranks, but the Aggies had the Dukes on the ropes in Logan earlier this season before coming up just short.
USU also unexpectedly pummeled a Colorado State team whose offense was firing on all cylinders at the time, with the Aggies’ poorly rated defense completely stymying that attack.
Utah State played defending Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State as closely as you can without walking away victorious and genuinely threatened Iowa in Iowa City, but barely eked out a win over lowly UConn and was truly humbled on the road against San Jose State.
Anderson has laid the blame for much of Utah State’s up-and-down nature this season on turnovers, and against SDSU the Aggies were turnover free, a major step forward in his book.
The many new faces on the team have also been discussed, as have injuries to key players, as well as overall youth and inexperience that is littered across the roster.
But just when you think the Aggies have figured things out, they haven’t. And when you think they’ve reached the limit of what they are capable of, they push beyond it.
Now at 4-5 overall, 2-3 in conference play, Utah State appears to be well within striking distance of bowl eligibility.
Logic and reason suggest it should come easily, too, with games remaining against the two worst teams in the MW in Nevada and New Mexico, plus a home game against a mortal Boise State team.
The victory over San Diego State was that important. USU now has room for error.
“That was huge,” Anderson said. “I don’t know how you quantify it, but nobody wants to go into the last three games having to bat .1000. We needed to get this one. It was a game that was winnable, although it is difficult to win on the road against anybody.”
The way things have gone this season, USU may very well lose to either Nevada or New Mexico. It has been that kind of year. But if they do, somehow it feels as though the team will bounce back anyway.
They’ve done it again and again this season after all. Over and over again. Defying everything that makes sense.
“You’ve seen us battle back all year when we were down,” Anderson said. “You’ve seen the way we’ve come back and either tied games up or gone ahead to win. I think resilience is a great word (to describe this team). I think this is a very close knit group of guys who care about each other, who care about our coaching staff.
“We throw the word love around a lot in that building, player to player, player to coach and coach to player, and I think it shows on the field. And so yeah, I think it comes, it plays out. This is just a very resilient, very close knit group of guys that fight really hard for each other.”
And on Saturday night it all came together. For a few plays at least.