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‘Tough sledding’ for Utah State in season-opening blowout loss at Boise State

Utah State running back Jaylen Warren (20) runs around the block of Utah State tight end Bryce Mortenson (86) against the Boise State defense in the second half in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Boise, Idaho.Boise State won 42-13.
Steve Conner, AP

Utah State opened the funky 2020 football season Saturday night without their once-in-a-generation quarterback, their leading rusher, their top receiver and their standout linebacker from last year’s team.

Making things worse, the Aggies had to open up on the road against the Boise State Broncos at Albertsons Stadium, where they haven’t won since last millennium.

The degree of difficulty was quite high for their first game, and it showed in a 42-13 loss to the Mountain West Conference favorites.

“We lost the battle on both sides of the line of scrimmage miserably most of the evening, right?” Utah State coach Gary Andersen said. “And that’s all of us. That’s not pointing the finger at anybody except me. Boise is very physical up front on both sides of the football. That showed.”

The good news for the Aggies, if we’re searching for a silver lining, is that they were only outscored by one point in the second half. That, however, didn’t come close to making up for the bad news that developed in the first half as the Broncos completely stifled the Aggies’ offense while racking up 28 points for a four-touchdown lead at halftime.

“Obviously, we had a few mental mistakes,” USU running back Jaylen Warren said.

That first half was especially brutal for the Aggies. They only managed to gain 45 yards of offense with one first down compared to a whopping 304 offensive yards and 17 first downs by the defending league champions.

“Some self-inflicted wounds stopped us from being able to move the ball in the first half,” said Andersen, whose offense only had 12 yards in the first quarter.

Utah State made things interesting in the second half, pulling within 15 points early in the fourth quarter. Warren started the comeback attempt by capping a 16-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. A few minutes later, the Aggies, who finished with 203 yards of offense, were handed a field-position gift after Boise State punter Joel Velazquez booted the ball into the back of one of his upmen.

The ball was then deflected deep into Broncos’ territory, on the 21-yard line, after what was listed as a minus-38-yard punt. Six players later, Warren pounded the football into the end zone from 2 yards out to cut the lead to 28-13 (the PAT was doinked off of the crossbar by kicker Nels Haltom).

“The first half we were flat,” Warren said, “but I’m glad we kind of came up from that.”

However, the Broncos quickly responded to put things away as receiver Khalil Shakir sliced his way through the Aggies’ defense for an 18-yard touchdown and a commanding 35-13 lead with 8:29 remaining. It was the second sweet TD reception for Shakir, who hauled in a 52-yard bomb in the first half.

“I thought we came out and we were able to get ourselves back in it, give ourselves a chance to be able to cut it to a one-score game,” Andersen said. “But obviously Boise came back and did what they did to score.”

USU starting quarterback Jason Shelley, a transfer from Utah, couldn’t get anything going in his Aggie debut in large part to a rough night for his offensive line. The junior finished hitting 14 of 27 passes for 92 yards with an interception on the final play of the game.

Warren was a bright spot on an otherwise dreary night for Utah State. He used a career-high 23 carries to rush for 89 yards and two touchdowns.

On the other end, the visitors couldn’t contain quarterback Hank Bachmeier and struggled to tackle while falling down big early, which included giving up three touchdowns in the second quarter.

The offensive line struggled mightily against the Broncos’ defensive front, something Andersen acknowledged made it nearly impossible for Shelley to effectively run the offense.

“It was tough sledding in there from a protection standpoint,” Andersen said. “When you’ve got guys whistling around your ear in 1.5 seconds, Peyton Manning in his prime is going to have a hard time making things happen. ... We’ve got to solve the protection up front to give any quarterback in the nation a chance to throw the ball and be able to do some things effectively.”

Bachmeier finished with 268 yards — most of which came in the first half — on 20-of-28 passing with three touchdowns to lead a Boise State squad that looks like it didn’t skip a beat after winning 12 games last season. The Broncos ended up with 450 yards of offense and had 25 first downs compared to just 12 for USU.

Returning running back George Holani also played well again for the Broncos with 100 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

“They’re a high-caliber offense. They do what they do well ... shifts in motion,” said USU inside linebacker Cash Gilliam, who had a career-high eight tackles. “We feel that we were prepared coming into the game. They are at the top of the food chain right now.”