Advancing the pigskin from their own 20-yard line to the Broncos’ 20 was not a problem for the Aggies, especially in the first half of their pivotal Mountain West football game last Saturday at Maverik Stadium.
Once Utah State reached or approached the red zone against Boise State’s veteran defense? Now that was an entirely different story. The Aggies scored a measly three points in four trips to the red zone, plus they were unable to capitalize on a couple of other promising drives.
That was the biggest reason why the Broncos earned their 18th victory in their last 19 showdowns against the Aggies — this time by a 27-3 scoreline. USU also turned the ball over three times, was penalized a whopping 13 times and tried a fake punt that was an utter disaster. Those failures, coupled with the inefficiency on offense, made it virtually impossible for the Aggies to pull off the upset.
“After watching the tape, I’m sulking a bit, to be honest with you,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “... My honest opinion of the game is that we had tons of energy and effort, but just had really poor execution in a lot of areas and, honestly, a lot of that falls on me and the staff. We didn’t do a great job, not so much of not preparing, but didn’t do a great job of adapting throughout the course of the game. We’ve made really, really good adjustments in the first three games, I think, that gave us a chance to go out in the second half and make some plays that got us back in the game. (But) I think we adjusted poorly (against BSU). We got outcoached. They made better adjustments than we did.”
One glaring example of this was third-down conversions. The Aggies (3-1, 0-1 MW) converted on 5 of 7 third downs en route to amassing 192 yards of total offense in the first quarter. However, USU was only successful on 1 of 10 third-down attempts the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, Boise State (2-2, 1-0) went 3 of 4 on third downs in the fourth quarter to essentially slam the door. This wasn’t really an indictment on the Aggie defense, which only allowed the Broncos to convert on 3 of 11 third downs during the first three quarters. USU’s defense was on the field way too much in the second half as BSU won the time of possession battle, 21:53 to 9:07.
After accumulating 317 total yards in the first half, the Aggies only mustered up 126 on just 24 plays after halftime. Two of those plays went for 28 and 41 yards, respectively, in succession in the third quarter, meaning BSU held USU to a ghastly 57 yards on the other 22 plays (2.5 yards per play) during the half. The Aggies went three and out four times after halftime and only picked up one first down on another second-half series.
Boise State, which only had to advance the pigskin 18 and 15 yards on two of its three touchdown drives, essentially forced Utah State to be one-dimension offensively in the second half. Aggie quarterbacks Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley teamed up to complete 2 of 9 passes for 48 yards during the final two quarters. Conversely, the Aggies gained 160 yards through the air in the opening half.
Once again, the Aggies, led by emerging star tailback Calvin Tyler Jr., were effective on the ground. The Oregon State transfer racked up 126 of his team’s 235 rushing yards, plus back-up running backs John Gentry and Elelyon Noa had chunk-yardages rushes of 41 and 35 yards, respectively. Through four games, USU is averaging 213.5 yards on the ground and Tyler Jr. ranks first in the Mountain West (103.5 ypg).
“Balance to me is taking what they give you and being effective at it and efficient at it, and we were in (the) open field,” Anderson said. “We did not run the ball well in the red zone. ... When you play a five-man box and you’re going to double cover some of our wideouts, which they choose to do, then we have to run the ball well. We ran it really, really well at times, but when we ran out of space, we have to be able to either win in one-on-one matchups outside, or we have to make a guy miss or be physical enough to go ahead and run the ball into the end zone, and we didn’t do either inside the red zone. So, I don’t care if we throw it 60 times or run it 60 times, what I want to do is score points.”
And while the Aggies had success moving the ball through the air at times, particularly in the first quarter, the Broncos did a fantastic job of making in-game adjustments. USU standout slot receiver Deven Thompkins hauled in four receptions for 60 yards in the opening quarter, but didn’t catch a pass after that. Thompkins entered the contest ranked first nationally in receiving yards an outing (151.3).
This was easily the Aggies’ worst performance in the passing game this season as they were only successful on 13 of 31 attempts, plus Bonner was picked off twice. Wideout Justin McGriff definitely shouldered some of the blame on the first INT, but the second one was a poor decision by Bonner. Both picks terminated promising drives by the hosts.
For the first time this season, no USU player caught more than four passes. The silver lining for the Aggies is their receivers will likely not face a better secondary than BSU’s. The Broncos have a bona fide star safety in the 6-foot-4 JL Skinner, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles and broke up a pass against the Aggies. Skinner has been BSU’s leader in tackles every game so far in 2021.
The Broncos have a lot of length and athleticism in their secondary as three of their four starters are 6-2 or taller, plus nickleback Kekoula Kaniho is a proven commodity. The three-year starter was a first- or second-team all-MW selection in 2019 and 2020.
“Yeah, I think that’s going to help us a lot moving forward,” USU wideout Derek Wright said during Monday’s press conference. “They were kind of the first team to come out and try and press us a lot. We saw some long corners at Washington State. They pressed a little bit, but definitely not as much as Boise did. And, like I said, I think that moving forward, if we face that again it’s going to help us be more prepared on how to handle that.”
USU, which got a nice interception from striker Ajani Carter, will have to regroup quickly as it hosts No. 13 BYU (4-0) on Friday for a scheduled 7 p.m. opening kickoff.