SAN DIEGO — The drought is over, but only after the Aggies had to sweat out a nerve-wracking fourth quarter.
Granted, the two football teams had only squared off three times in the past 41 years, but Utah State hadn't defeated San Diego State on the gridiron since 1967 — a span of 10 games.
The Aggies made enough plays on both sides of the ball to ensure the Aztecs didn't extend their winning streak to 11 in the series. Utah State kicked off Mountain West play with a heart-stopping 23-17 victory over SDSU in front of an announced crowd of 27,367 late Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium.
In the process, the Aggies (2-1, 1-0 MW) handed the Aztecs (3-1, 0-1) their first loss of the season and terminated a 13-game SDSU winning streak in the month of September.
"It was a huge victory," USU head coach Gary Andersen said. "When you're playing San Diego State, it's very, very difficult to win in this place. Myself personally over 30 years, I have not had much success in this place. In fact, I believe it was zero (success), but it's not zero anymore, so that's a beautiful thing."
The Aggies had to seemingly comfortable 23-3 lead heading into the final quarter, but the Aztecs refused to fold, scoring a pair of touchdowns during a five-minute span. SDSU gave itself new life on a broken play that resulted in a 25-yard TD reception by a wide open Kobe Smith on a fourth-and-16.
Less than five minutes later, the hosts capped off an eight-play, 91-yard march with a 49-yard catch and run to paydirt by Isaiah Richardson on a well-thrown fourth-and-five pass from SDSU quarterback Ryan Agnew under heavy pressure.
USU drove down the field and had a chance to ice the game, but normally ultra-reliable kicker Dominik Eberle missed a 42-yard field goal wide right with 1:18 remaining in the contest.
Fortunately for the Aggies, their defense was up to the challenge. USU defensive linemen Justus Te'i and Nick Heninger forced Agnew to scramble more nearly 40 yards backward on fourth-and-10, and the play resulted in a personal grounding penalty to seal the win for the visitors.
It was the type of nail-bilting win the Aggies have struggled mightily to pull out over the past four-plus seasons.
"It was definitely really important for us, because what you said is true," said USU wide receiver Savon Scarver, who finished with a career-best five catches and 90 receiving yards. "You know, we tend to get in close games and fold, but today I feel like we came out and executed. Defensively, we executed. Offense, we started off a little slow (and) executed getting first downs, but we didn't come out with the touchdowns that we're capable of. So, we'll definitely go back to the (practice field) and get better."
Indeed, the Aggies left several points off the scoreboard as they booted a trio of field goals on drives that ended in the red zone. Nevertheless, USU gained 375 yards of total offense against a SDSU defense that ranked seventh nationally in total defense (248 yards per game).
It wasn't pretty at times, but the Aggies still pieced together a pretty solid first half on both sides of the ball as they took a comfortable 20-3 lead into the locker room.
USU definitely looked shaky early on as it allowed SDSU to march 70 yards on 16 plays on the first possession of the contest. The Aztecs shaved 7:11 off the game clock — nearly half the first quarter — before settling for a 22-yard Matt Araiza field goal. The Aggies then proceeded to go three and out on their first possession of the game.
USU safety Shaq Bond made sure SDSU's momentum was short-lived, though. The Aggies dialed up the pressure on Agnew, and it paid off in a huge way. Under duress, Agnew's third-down pass was tipped and picked off by Bond, who utilized a wall of blockers down the SDSU sideline en route to a 48-yard touchdown.
It was the second pick-six of Bond's Aggie career, and it gave the visitors a 7-3 lead it wouldn't relinquish at the six-minute mark of the opening quarter.
"It really felt great," said Bond, who finished with eight tackles, including 1.5 for a loss, and nearly intercepted two more passes. "I talked about it all day that I felt (an INT) coming today. I didn't know if it was going to be a pick-six or not, but I just felt one coming today and, lo and behold, Hale got his had on that (pass), which tipped it in my direction. And without him it would have never happened."
USU put together a 15-play, 75-yard drive on its second possession of the contest. Siaosi Mariner and Caleb Repp extended the drive with third-down receptions, and Mariner was interfered with in the end zone, allowing the visitors to advance inside the red zone. The Aggies eventually settled for a 30-yard Eberle field goal.
Another SDSU special teams penalty — the hosts had three in the first half — gave USU outstanding field position early in the second quarter. The Aggies weren't fully able to capitalize as they were limited to a 29-yard Eberle FG, but they still had a two-possession advantage — which is big against a ball possession team like SDSU — at 13-3.
USU was primed to go into the half with a 10-point lead but, to its credit, wasn't content with that. The Aggies only needed 39 seconds and seven plays to advance the pigskin 80 yards. A 48-yard bomb from Jordan Love to Scarver set the stage for Jaylen Warren, who broke a tackle on a memorable 11-yard scamper to paydirt, giving USU a 20-3 lead with 39 seconds remaining in the half.
The Aztec offense converted on their first three third downs of the game, but only went 1 of 8 the rest of the half — a big reason why the Aggies were able to take control the rest of the half.
However, USU never took full control because it only managed three points in the second half. The Aggies received the opening kickoff of the third quarter and promptly marched 57 yards in 13 plays, but ultimately settled for a 32-yard field goal by Eberle.
The Aztecs gained 212 of their 372 yards in the second half. Agnew completed 20 of 37 passes for a career-high 281 yards.
Love ended up completing 30 of 47 passes for 293 yards. Six different Aggies caught three or more passes, led by Mariner's seven for 74 yards. Warren finished with 74 hard-earned rushing yards against a SDSU defense that only yielded 42 per game heading into the crucial Mountain West showdown.
It was a breakout performance from all-conference USU defensive end Tipa Galeai, who recorded three tackles for loss, one sack and flat out wreaked a lot of havoc, especially in the second half when the Aztecs were forced to throw the ball more.
"You know, he stepped up big. When we needed him in those situations, he made some big-play plays," Andersen said of Galeai. "So, Tipa's a great young man. He's a team player first, he's unselfish. He'll take his opportunities when they come, and he took advantage of that tonight."
The Aggies recorded a season-best four sacks and added 10 tackles for loss by seven different players. David Woodward tallied a game-best 13 tackles, while DJ Williams chipped with a career-best 12 stops, including 11 of the solo variety. Linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer also had a strong performance for the Aggie D as he made nine tackles.
Senior cornerback Cameron Haney not only saw his first playing time of the season for USU, he was in the starting lineup. No. 6 made his presence felt as he contributed four solo tackles and a game-best three passes broken up.
"Welcome back, Cam, because he did a great job tonight," Bond said. "You know, we missed him the last couple of weeks. He had been rehabbing and getting stronger every day, and he came out today and showed it."
Junior safety Cash Gilliam, who has started two games, and freshman right guard Andy Koch left the game with injuries and did not return. Koch, who was replaced in the lineup by Kyler Hack, was on crutches after the game and not putting any weight on his right leg.
USU team notes
• The Aggies have outscored their opponents by a 77-20 margin in the first half this season, including 44-7 in the second quarter.
• USU didn't allow a first-half TD for the fifth time since the 2018 campaign.