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Utah State report card: A lot more of the same for the Aggies in blowout loss to SDSU

San Diego State running back Chance Bell (21) runs downfield as Utah State defensive lineman Hale Motu’apuaka (92) chases after him during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

For the second consecutive week, things did not go the Utah State Aggies’ way.

A week after dropping their season opener to No. 25 Boise State, the Aggies weren’t any better in their home opener against San Diego State on Saturday night.

The Aztecs pummeled the Aggies 38-7 in a performance that USU head coach Gary Andersen described afterward as “complete domination.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Andersen bemoaned in his postgame press conference. “We just got beat tonight.”

Here are the grades for Utah State’s second game of the season:

Offense

It may be difficult to believe, but USU might actually have been worse offensively against San Diego State than it was against Boise State.

The Aggies mustered only one scoring drive the entire game, and it took a SportsCenter Top 10-worthy throw and catch — Jason Shelley to Deven Thompkins — to pull it off.

That play aside, the Aggies never really threatened the Aztecs. Utah State’s passing attack, helmed by either Jason Shelley or Andrew Peasley (both led the offense for multiple series), rarely proved capable of more than the dink and dunk.

Drops were a problem, particularly when Shelley was under center, but more dispiriting was the lack of explosive plays.

Andersen put it this way: “We’d be at first-and-10, then second down and 7 and then third-and-5 and then punt. There were no explosive plays. When we’d complete a pass, we’d get tackled. Offensive football is about explosive plays, and we didn’t have any.”

The Aggies finished with 112 yards passing, averaging only 6.2 yards per completion. Of the eight different players who caught passes, only one — Thompkins — had a reception greater than 10 yards.

“We don’t have an identity on offense,” Andersen said. “We don’t have any rhythm.”

The only thing that went in Utah State’s favor on offense was the run game, and it was average at best. With senior running back Jaylen Warren out for an undisclosed reason, the Aggies totaled 103 rushing yards on 25 carries. That averaged out to 4.1 yards per carry, a solid if not inspiring mark.

Graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole had his moments, especially early in the game as the primary replacement for Warren, as did freshmen Elelyon Noa and John Gentry later on. Both Noa and Gentry had runs that went for 16 or more yards. Throw in the scrambling ability of both Shelley and Peasley, and the Aggies had some success on the ground.

Ultimately, though, Utah State’s offense was basically what it was the week before, which is to say not enough.

Grade: D-

Defense

Through the first two quarters of Saturday night’s game, Utah State’s defense looked good. Perfect? Of course not, but the Aggies looked capable. There were even moments when they didn’t look all that dissimilar from the team’s defense in 2018.

It was back to the “bend, but don’t break,” philosophy, and through the first two quarters against the Aztecs, the Aggies did that.

Early on when SDSU drove deep into USU territory, the Aggies forced a fourth down and then defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka blocked a field-goal try by San Diego State kicker Matt Araiza, who just so happens to be on the Lou Groza Award watch list.

On a subsequent offensive series for SDSU, the Aggies forced another field-goal attempt, this one from 45-yards out, and Araiza missed wide left.

On another occasion, the Aztecs went for it on fourth down deep in Aggie territory, and again Utah State’s defense did what was necessary, got the stop and got off the field.

All told, USU held SDSU to only 10 first-half points, with the defense almost singlehandedly keeping the Aggies in the game.

If this grade was solely for Utah State’s first-half performance, it might have been as good as B+. The entire game is taken into account, though, and in the second half, the Aggies’ defense utterly disappeared.

San Diego State ran the ball down Utah State’s throat time and again in the second half, tallying 289 rushing yards in the third and fourth quarters. Those yards led to touchdowns — four to be exact — and with each score, the Aggies’ defense got worse and worse.

Safety Shaq Bond explained the collapse as a loss of energy, but more than that, Utah State just wasn’t good enough.

“I thought the defense played well, but we didn’t play hard enough,” Bond said. “We left a lot of plays out there. We need to do better at doing our job and work together. We need to make plays and get in the right positions. We are getting the right play calls, but we are going to figure it out and get back to the drawing board.”

Grade: D+

Special Teams

For the second straight week, the Aggies had their moments on special teams.

Chief among those against SDSU was Motu’apuaka getting his paw on Araiza’s kick on the Aztecs’ first offensive series of the game.

True freshman punter Stephen Kotsanlee had his moments, too — he punted seven times — including a career-long 56-yard punt, and both Henry-Cole and Savon Scarver returned a kickoff for 20-plus yards — Scarver had a team-best 27-yard return.

There was some bad, too, though.

Kotsanlee’s first punt went only 23 yards, and in a game the Aggies were desperate for any kind of spark, neither Scarver, Henry-Cole nor Thompson could muster a game-changing special teams play.

All of which is to say that the Aggies were pretty average on special teams Saturday night. They didn’t make any huge mistakes — when they did they made up for them — but they also weren’t really a positive.

Grade: C

Overall

One week after a disappointing season opener, Utah State was no less disappointing in its home opener.

Andersen, whose return-to-Utah-State honeymoon might be coming to an end soon, put it best.

“Not a whole lot to say,” he said. “You look at the stat line, and it was complete domination. We battled in the first half and couldn’t do anything in the second half at all on offense or defense. I don’t know what to say. We just got beat tonight. We just physically got beat up on both sides of the football. We missed tackles again on defense. We had opportunities to make them. That’s not all on the kids, that’s on coaches, too. They need to be in position to be able to make the plays and do what you’ve got to do. That was a team that did not win the physical battle on either side, again. That’s just facts. None of us can run from that, none of us can hide from that.

“The more physical team dominated two weeks in a row. That goes back two or three games last year as well. You’ve got to figure that out with the kids on the team, you’ve got to figure it out with the coaches, you’ve got to figure it out in recruiting, in the weight room, in how we eat — all the things that come with it. We are getting our (butt) knocked off the football on both sides of the ball. Tackles have a lot to do with strength, with our ability to get them in the right spot as coaches, and I could go on and on. That’s a fact. We got dominated physically, and that’s all of us.”

Grade: D