That might be the most befitting way to describe Utah State’s latest road loss to a football team from a Power 5 Conference.
Wake Forest scored the go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-and-goal pass with 1:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, and got an interception from star linebacker Justin Strnad with Utah State in field goal range and just 17 ticks left on the clock. The Demon Deacons held off the Aggies, 38-35, in a wildly entertaining season opener for both teams — one that featured seven lead changes — in front of an announced crowd of 29,027 Friday night at BT&T Field in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“(We’re) highly disappointed, obviously,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said in a radio interview with 1280 The Zone. “(It’s been) 48 years and counting since we were able to get one of those (wins) on the road against a Power 5 team and we had a great opportunity again tonight, and we didn’t get it done. But these kids fought, battled. I mean, it’s amazing. ... They’re very, very disappointed, but I’m proud as hell of them.”
The two teams combined to amass 1,175 yards of total offense — 596 for the Aggies and 579 for the Demon Deacons, who won their 10th consecutive season opener. Notwithstanding their big night offensively, the Aggies committed three costly turnovers — all interceptions thrown by standout quarterback Jordan Love — and lost the turnover battle, 3-1. Love only tossed six INTs all of last season, and Wake Forest’s defense only picked off six passes in 13 games a year ago.
Love still made a lot of huge plays and ended up completing 33 of 48 passes for 416 yards and three TDs. Wake Forest signal caller Jamie Newman also had a monster performance as he went 34 for 47 for 401 yards and three scores, vs. zero INTs.
USU starting cornerback Cameron Haney did not play Friday, and the visitors lost two other corners during the course of the game.
“You lose your top three corners and, all of a sudden, guys who had been at corner for two-and-a-half of weeks of practice are out there playing in their first college game that they’re ever even traveled to,” Andersen lamented.
USU took its final lead of the contest early in the fourth quarter on a 4-yard run by junior college transfer Jaylen Warren, who was fantastic in his first game as an Aggie. The junior finished with a game-best 141 yards on 19 carries, and busted out a pair of 40-plus-yard scampers.
“Jaylen Warren’s a great player,” Andersen said. “This team has a lot of really talented players on it, I believe, and ... everywhere Jaylen’s been, he’s been successful. And his first game here tonight he was obviously highly successful and did a great job for us. ... He had a tremendous game and it’s a crying shame we couldn’t get that victory for all of those kids on this football field.”
USU’s other second-half TD was an explosive 56-yard catch and run by Deven Thompkins, who showcased his blazing speed. Wake Forest found paydirt twice in the third quarter courtesy on runs of 1 and 12 yards, respectively.
USU’s rush defense was very, very good in the final two quarters, but Wake Forest always had an answer with its passing attack. Kendall Hinton’s 2-yard TD reception, following three straight goal-line run stops by the visitors, ended up being the difference against the Aggies’ banged up secondary.
“Those were three big-time stops, and (then) they throw the ball up and they make a play,” Andersen said. “They have tremendous wide receivers, tall, long, great contested ball catchers. ... I mean, 14’s a fantastic player. He’s special.”
That player Andersen is referring to is the 6-foot-3 Sage Surratt, who gained 158 yards on seven receptions.
Surratt’s heroics helped offset an absolutely stunning performance by USU All-American linebacker David Woodward, who recorded a career-best 24 tackles, including 18 of the solo variety and 3.5 for a loss. The junior also forced a pair of fumbles and had one of his team’s three sacks.
USU’s defense played well for most of the fourth quarter, giving its offense a chance to put the game away. The Aggies were up 35-31 and had crossed midfield with 2:30 left in the contest, but failed to pick up a first down on a third-down rushing attempt by Warren.
Did Andersen consider throwing the ball in that situation?
“We thought about possibly throwing in that situation,” he said. “... We didn’t believe it was quite a zero look as it was. They did a nice job on defense of disguising, so we thought we would potentially have a crease in there. When you’re playing against good coaches and good players, every snap is going to be a cat-and-mouse game, and their kids made a play.”
Both defenses made some big plays in the first half, but the two offenses racked up a combined 617 yards of total offense — 330 for the Aggies and 287 for the Demon Deacons.
It didn’t take long for Wake Forest to assert itself on the offensive end. The Demon Deacons received the opening kickoff and promptly marched 75 yards in eight plays, capped off by a 22-yard TD reception by Surratt.
To its credit, USU’s response was decisive. The visitors only needed eight plays to pull even. Gerold Bright found a crease and raced into the end zone from 7 yards out. Love completed all five of his passes for 65 yards on the Aggies’ first possession of the season.
USU had a golden opportunity to take its first lead of the game when Justus Te’i recovered a fumble on Wake Forest’s second possession. The Aggies advanced the pigskin inside the red zone, but Warren came up short on a fourth-and-one run at the WF 13-yard line.
A couple of minutes later, a spectacular play by Woodward was negated by a defensive holding penalty. Woodward had ripped the ball away from Newman and sprinted to the end zone.
The Demon Deacons dodged another bullet late in the first quarter when Love was picked off in the end zone by Trey Rucker. The Aggies had marched to the WF 4-yard line.
Wake Forest capitalized on the takeaway, but not fully. After Love’s first pick of the game, the hosts drove 70-plus yards, but Scotty Washington dropped a third-and-goal pass in the middle of the end zone, and the Demon Deacons settled for a 21-yard field goal by Nick Sciba.
Once again, USU’s response was swift and assertive. The Aggies only needed five plays to march 90 yards. A 59-yard run by Warren set the stage for a beautiful 27-yard TD strike from Love to Jordan Nathan on third and 12, giving the visitors a 14-10 advantage.
Wake Forest was in good shape to retake the lead, but USU blew up a fourth-and-one run inside its own 4. However, the Demon Deacons were still able to seize the lead midway through the second quarter on a 9-yard scoring reception by Washington.
Another nice play by Woodward gave the Aggies one more chance to score in the opening half, and they capitalized. On the seventh play of an 80-yard drive, Siaosi Mariner made a sensational 17-yard TD catch in the corner of the end zone to give the visitors a 21-17 halftime advantage. Mariner high-pointed the ball beautifully and was able to drag his left foot before he was forced out of bounds.
Mariner sparkled in his first game as an Aggie as he snared eight receptions for 118 yards. Nathan and tight end Caleb Repp combined for 144 yards on 11 catches for the Aggies, who got 10 tackles from Troy Lefeged Jr. and nine from Kevin Meitzenheimer.