It wasn't pretty, but a majestic performance by the defense, coupled with another sublime special teams play by Savon Scarver, was all the Aggies needed to extend their home winning streak to 10.
Utah State kept Nevada off the scoreboard for 49 minutes of game time, Scarver returned another kickoff for a touchdown and the Aggies pulled away in the fourth quarter en route to a 36-10 drubbing of the Wolf Pack in front of an announced crowd of 15,240 on a chilly Saturday night at Maverik Stadium.
"It's always great to win, obviously," USU head coach Gary Andersen said. "I thought the defense played outstanding ... and we finally got some things going late on offense, which was a positive. And Savon made a huge play in a football game again, and the rest of the other 10 kids on the field did a tremendous job in that situation also. So, it was a great victory. ... I thought the kids handled the bye week well and came back and were ready to play, and we got the victory."
The Wolf Pack failed to pick up a first down on 10 straight possessions spanning the first and third quarters and went three and out 11 times during the crucial Mountain West game.
"I for sure thought our defense played comfortable. Comfortable is probably the best word to describe it," said USU defensive back Andre Grayson, who put together the best performance of his collegiate career. "Everybody trusted each other, the coaches trusted us, we trusted them and we just executed on what we needed to. We had fun with it."
The Aggies struggled offensively for large stretches of the game, but Gerold Bright rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to bury the visitors. The senior got to the edge and burned the Wolf Pack defense on an explosive 67-yard run to give the hosts a 29-3 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
"So, I've been watching Barry Sanders clips, so when I broke that run, I was like, 'what would Barry do? Barry's not going to get caught, Barry's going to score, so I was (pretty) happy," Bright said while chuckling. "It was a relief. You know, I did a little pump on the chest ... and I'm happy that my wideouts and my O-line did what they were supposed to do so I could have an open lane to the end zone."
USU (4-2, 3-0 MW) added to its lead less than 80 seconds later on a 9-yard scoring scamper by Bright, who finished with 126 yards on 15 carries. A 48-yard diving reception by Siaosi Mariner set the stage for Bright, who found paydirt on the ensuing play.
The Aggies only needed two aforementioned plays to score after linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer intercepted Nevada quarterback Malik Henry for the second time in the game. A third Aggie INT, this one by true freshman cornerback Cam Lampkin, was negated due to a penalty.
The Wolf Pack (4-3, 1-2), which was hampered by 13 penalties, did score in garbage time on a 20-yard run by Toa Taua with 4:48 remaining in the final quarter. The Aggies were able to substitute freely at that juncture of the game.
For the second time in as many home games, it was a dynamic play by Scarver that gave the Aggies a much-needed injection of momentum.. USU was trailing 3-0 early in the first quarter when Scarver took the ensuing Nevada kickoff 100 yards to the house. It was the All-American's second kickoff return for a TD this season and fifth of his career, which is a new program record.
"He has such a natural skillset to see the field as it's setting up in front of him," Andersen said of Scarver. "He has tremendous speed and unbelievable athletic ability, God-given ability, and he's special as a kickoff returner. You know, anytime he can catch it, you better watch out, but I think the other guys deserve some credit also (on those returns)."
USU's defense then proceeded to take control of the game. The Wolf Pack marched 75 yards on 10 plays in the opening possession of the contest, which was capped off by a 23-yard field goal by Brandon Talton.
However, Nevada went absolutely nowhere during its other nine possessions of the first half, which resulted in zero first downs. The Wolf Pack gained a measly 32 yards on those nine possessions against an Aggie defense that broke up six passes, intercepted one, racked up five tackles for loss and recorded a safety in the opening half.
Deven Thompkins downed a Christian Bartolic punt at the Nevada 1-yard line late in the first quarter, and USU quickly capitalized on Nevada's terrible field position. Aggie linebacker Justus Te'i tackled Toa, the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year, in the end zone, giving the hosts a 9-3 lead with eight ticks left on the first-quarter clock.
The Aggies struggled offensively in the opening quarter as they were limited to 56 yards on 14 plays. However, USU's offense gained some traction in the second quarter as it gained 144 yards and scored 13 points. More struggles in the red zone prevented the hosts from really breaking the game open.
Great field position set the stage for the first of two Dominik Eberle field goals, a 29-yarder that gave the Aggies a 12-3 advantage with 10:58 remaining in the second quarter. USU only needed to gain 23 yards to put Eberle in chip shot range.
The Aggies continued to win the field position battle, and they took full advantage of it this time around. Love found tight end Caleb Repp on a 13-yard slant in the end zone to cap off a seven-play, 39-yard drive and give the hosts a 19-3 lead.
A few minutes later, the Aggies tacked on three more points on a 32-yard FG by Eberle. Jaylen Warren busted off runs of 25 and 14 yards to put USU in scoring position.
Warren, who missed the LSU game with an injury and played sparingly the week before against Colorado State, bounced back nicely after fumbling on his first carry of the contest. The junior rushed for 71 yards on nine attempts in the first half.
Neither team was really able to get anything going offensively in the third quarter as Nevada only picked up 56 total yards, which was 12 more than Utah State. Eberle pinged a 47-yard field goal off the post — only his second miss of the season — in the third quarter, and Talton was unsuccessful later in the quarter on a 51-yarder, which was his first miss of the year.
The Aggies did finish strong as they amassed 164 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter and ended up gaining 418 in the contest. Neither team had a lot of success passing the ball — Henry was 17 of 38 for 213 yards, and Love was 13 of 31 for 169 yards — and they were several dropped passes by both squads.
"I didn't think the offense played well," Bright said. "We played well enough to win, but if we were playing for a Mountain West championship today, I don't feel like that would have cut it. So, we've got to get back to the basics, the fundamentals and grind and fix everything."
Grayson highlighted USU's dominant defensive effort by establishing career highs in tackles (nine), tackles for loss (2.0), sacks (1.0), forced fumbles (two) and passes broken up (three).
"Grace comes to work every single day, and all of those ... DBs that are back there on the back end, those kids come with the mindset to get better," Andersen said. "And I think that has a lot to do with (cornerbacks coach) Mark (Orphey). Mark does a great job of coaching those corners and those nickels, and giving them the opportunity to be able to work to get better every day. Those kids have completely bought into our program."
David Woodward chipped in with a game-high 11 tackles and broke up two passes for an Aggie defense that finished with a season-best nine PBUs. In addition to Grayson, Tipa Galeai and Devon Anderson also had sacks for USU, which did a superb job of keeping Henry off-balance with a wide variety of pass rushing schemes.
"That's probably the best part about it is our defensive line, we can count on them always to get pressure, and it makes it really easy on us back there," Grayson said. "As a defensive backfield, we trust that they're going to get that pressure and we know what we have to do, we know our schemes very well ... and we trust each other."
Returning from injuries
The second bye week ended up being a very valuable one for the Aggies, who welcomed a handful of players back from injuries. Warren, Mariner, Repp, offensive tackle Kyler Hack and defensive tackle Caden Andersen all returned from their injuries.
"We're always going to take the byes whenever they come because we don't control that, but this one was good to get some of those guys healthy and back out on the field," coach Andersen said. "And the trainers do a great job, the docs do a great job, the weight room guys do a great job and we try to practice and manage practice as well as we possibly can to help them recover, yet still be involved in the game plan when they're coming off those injuries. So, it's a team effort."
• Since joining the Mountain West, the Aggies are 17-4 against opponents from the West Division.
• This is the fifth time in program history USU has won at least 10 consecutive games at home.
• During their 10-game winning streak at Maverik Stadium, the Aggies have outscored the opposition by a combined margin of 527-169. USU has also scored at least 34 in each of those contest.