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Utah State football report card: Aggies show significant improvement in first win of season

Utah State wasn’t perfect in the 41-27 win over New Mexico, but compared to the previous four outings of the year, the Aggies were nearly unrecognizable.

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Utah State Aggies players greet their families after defeating New Mexico Lobos 41-27 at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Utah State is no longer winless.

After losing five consecutive games going back to last year, the Aggies finally got off the schneid on Thanksgiving night with a 41-27 win over New Mexico.

It was a clash between the two worst teams in the Mountain West Conference, but for a night at least that was all forgotten.

All that mattered was USU won a football game and looked pretty good doing it. Immediately after the game, you could see the joy and relief in the Aggies’ eyes.

“Man, it is a huge burden off our shoulders, to get the first win and get us on the right path,” freshman inside linebacker Kina Maile said, with a huge grin on his face. “We’ve been itching to get that zero off of our record and we finally got it. It is feels wonderful and we are going to celebrate this the whole weekend.”

Interim head coach Franke Maile, while a little more subdued, couldn’t help but be excited either. It was his first regular-season win as a collegiate head coach and it validated Maile and the team’s efforts since he took over for Gary Andersen.

“It is hard to win football games,” he said. “But any time you can do it with all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — it is a great feeling.”

The Aggies did indeed appear improved in all aspects of the game, some more than others.

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

Offense

For the first time all season, Utah State had an offense.

No really.

Gone was the complete inability to muster any sort of a passing attack. Gone was the running attack that simply couldn’t go it alone. Gone was the offense that, if it did manage to move the ball, could only get into scoring territory once or twice a game.

Utah State scored 41 points against New Mexico, nearly matching the team’s previous season scoring total of 45. The Aggies finished with 452 yards of total offense, and averaged 7.53 yards per play to get there.

There were explosive plays, on the ground and through the air, as well as long, effective game-changing drives.

There were many reasons for the Aggies’ success on offense. They were playing against the worst passing defense in the MWC, and the 11th worst total defense. That needs to be said. But in quarterback Andrew Peasley, USU finally had a signal caller who looked the part of playmaker.

Peasley completed 14 of 21 pass attempts for 239 yards and three touchdowns and was only sacked once. He also showed off an innate running ability and rushed for a team-high 118 yards and a touchdown.

“Peasley did a great job controlling the game,” Frank Maile said. “He didn’t force anything with those throws and he used his legs which is one of his many talents and I think it paid off in the end. That is the beauty of having a dual-threat quarterback. He found a way to make it happen. He did an awesome job tonight.”

It took a while for Peasley and the Aggies to get going, though. Through the first half, USU moved the ball well enough, but couldn’t get the ball into the end zone. Peasley even fumbled away what should have been a touchdown-scoring drive at the end of the half.

“In the first half, the offense did a great job establishing the run and controlling the clock, we just didn’t finish the way we could have,” said Frank Maile.

Everything changed in the third quarter, however, as Peasley found Justin McGriff, Savon Scarver and Carson Terrell for touchdown receptions. The Aggies’ passing attack, which had taken a back seat to the run game early in the contest, woke up in a big way.

“We kept driving down, just couldn’t finish in the end zone,” said Peasley. “I had that fumble on the pylon. We went into halftime and just came out with some fire. We wanted to take shots, we took them and were successful.”

Everything wasn’t perfect from then on. McGriff fumbled in the fourth quarter, a turnover that set up a New Mexico score, but for the first time this season, the Aggies’ offense could be considered a success.

Grade: A

Defense

In many ways, Utah State’s defense played the best it had all season.

The Aggies posted season lows in points allowed (27), passing yards allowed (152), total offense (348) and yards per play allowed (4.6), and tied for the fewest first downs allowed (25). The defense tied its season-high with four sacks, had a season-high six pass breakups and forced two turnovers, an interception and a fumble.

The fumble, forced by Nick Heninger, turned into a scoop-and-score for Kina Maile, and the interception by Luke Marion ended the game.

Throw in a dominant third quarter where USU outscored New Mexico 28-7 — the Aggies scored 28 straight points — and the defense could be believed to have played well, even great.

Making it all the more impressive? USU did so while playing mostly underclassmen, with senior linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer out and former starters Troy Lefeged Jr. and Cash Gilliam no longer with the team.

Kina Maile was a standout, as was the seemingly ever constant AJ Vongphachanh. Sophomore cornerbacks Dominic Tatum and Cam Lampkin had their best games of the year.

And yet, New Mexico still finished with 27 points, converted 9 of 17 third downs, and even when the Lobos were down to their third-string quarterback at the end, they threatened USU until the final moments of the game.

“Defensively, it wasn’t bad, but we should have gotten off the field more,” Frank Maile said. “We struggled with third downs a little bit.”

Maile praised his defense’s play in the third quarter — “Went three-and-out on their first series out there. The second (series) was a strip sack for a touchdown, which was big time. It swung the momentum,” he said — but in the fourth quarter USU got away from what it did well and New Mexico made things closer than they should have been.

“The fourth quarter got a little bit tighter than we wanted it to,” said Frank Maile. “We gave up too many touchdowns on defense, but finished the game the right way with a takeaway.”

Grade: C

Special Teams

For the second time this season, the Aggies’ special teams proved to be difference makers.

There was no Savon Scarver kick return for a touchdown this time, unlike what happened against Fresno State two weeks ago, but that kind of an explosive play wasn’t needed against the Lobos.

Instead, the Aggies got a pair of field goals from junior kicker Connor Coles in the first half that kept them in the game, even as the USU offense let multiple touchdown scoring opportunities slip away.

Coles had some serious shoes to fill this season, replacing Lou Groza nominee Dominik Eberle, but thus far he has been perfect on field-goal tries, and he hit a season-long 44-yarder against New Mexico.

Coles wasn’t the only bright spot on special teams, however. Kina Maile was just as impactful on special teams as he was on defense and blocked a punt by Tyson Dyer, setting up one of the four USU touchdowns in the third quarter (Maile just so happened to score that very touchdown, on his fumble recovery).

New Mexico kicker Donovan Murphree did connect on both his field-goal tries, but otherwise, the Lobos were largely ineffectual on special teams.

Grade: A

Overall

No one is going to mistake New Mexico for a great football team, or even a good one. Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales said as much after the game.

“We’re a bad football team,” he said. “My message in the locker room was exactly that. I’ve been around some really good football teams, and the only way you get better is if you show up to work the next opportunity you get, which will be tomorrow.”

Given that, reactions to Utah State’s performance should be tempered. The Aggies beat a bad team.

And yet, USU showed enough flashes against the Lobos to engender some optimism. The offense was effective, at times. The defense had its moments, special teams, too.

Utah State was the better team Thursday, the first time all year the Aggies could make that statement, and because of it they left Maverik Stadium victorious.

Now, the challenge is how to build upon their winning performance.

“Obviously right now there is a lot of emotion with our team,” said Peasley. “We are all excited. We all love this. Winning feels really really good. Tomorrow will be our Thanksgiving, so we’ll spend it with our family who are here, lay low. But then Saturday we have to come back and get better. Fix the mistakes we had and go from there.”

Grade: B+