Regardless if one team is a big underdog or not, the Utah State-Colorado State football games are typically hard-fought affairs.
The two programs have squared off in nine straight seasons, and every one of those games have been decided by two touchdowns or fewer, including five by 10 points or fewer.
The latest USU-CSU showdown featured two defensive touchdowns — one by each team — seven turnovers, a blocked punt, a special teams touchdown and some awful weather. The Aggies ultimately played lights out defensively, especially in the second half, and well enough offensively and on special teams to earn a 34-24 victory over the Rams in a torrential rainstorm last Saturday night at Maverik Stadium.
“It was a big victory to get to 2-0 in (the Mountain West),” USU head coach Gary Andersen said during Monday’s press conference. “Those first two conference games for us, if you look back at them, there were just so many plays that either way can flip that game in our favor, or quite frankly, against us. In the three tight ball games, including Wake Forest, that we’ve had, that’s exactly what’s taken place. We’ve made enough plays to win two of those three games, and, fortunately, those were both our two conference games. More of those are coming. This is an extremely competitive conference.”
USU limited a potent CSU offense — one that entered the game averaging 552.2 yards an outing — to 296 yards of total offense, including a measly 79 on 35 rushing attempts . The Rams had an eight-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown, but the visitors gained 66 of those yards on one passing play. CSU didn’t march more than 42 yards on any of its other possessions, went three and out five times and only picked up one first down on four other occasions. The visitors only converted 4 of 16 third downs.
Auburn transfer Nate Craig-Myers, one of the nation’s highest-rated recruits coming out of high school, torched the Aggies with three receptions for 97 yards in the opening half. USU cornerback Cameron Haney and company did an outstanding job of holding Craig-Myers to zero catches after the break.
Of the 24 points the Rams scored, 10 were off of turnovers — Andre Neal had a pick-six in the second quarter — and a blocked punt set up another CSU TD. The visitors only needed to go 18 yards to find paydirt following their blocked punt midway through the first quarter.
“I feel like we got put in a couple of compromising positions field-wise in the beginning of the first half, but we battled, we fought, we bent, but didn’t break,” said Haney, who has broken up a combined six passes in USU’s last two games, and notched his first career sack against the Rams. “I feel like throughout the course of the game it showed, and toward the fourth quarter we were able to get the victory, and I’m proud of our defense and how much we were able to overcome. That’s just a testament to our coaches and how much we do in practice, and the culture that we have around here.”
Despite turning the ball over three times in the first half, coupled with the aforementioned blocked punt, the Aggies still managed to take a 24-21 lead into the half. All-American kickoff return Savon Scarver was a huge reason why.
With USU trailing 7-0, the junior caught the ensuing CSU kickoff at least seven yards into the end zone, received punishing blocks from Christian LaValle and Jarrod Green, and sprinted his way untouched into the end zone. Scarver matched former NFL draft pick Kevin Robinson for the most career kickoff returns for TDs (four) in program history.
“If you heard what I said on the headset when (Scarver) started to bring it out, I didn’t think he was going to turn it around and bring it out,” Andersen said. “The funny thing is a few of the guys around me heard what I said, which was basically, ‘I can’t believe we’re bringing that ball out right now.’ And then the next thing we know, the red sea opened. ... Savon’s going to make that decision, and his off returner is going to help him make his decision. They saw the green light and took the green light. I was wrong and they were right in a big way.”
Thanks to No. 11’s clutch return, the Aggies now rank first among all FBS in kickoff return average (34.6 yards per return). For his efforts, Scarver was selected as the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week.
The Aggies won two of the three specialty awards as All-American linebacker David Woodward was named the MW Defensive Player of the Week, plus the College Sports Madness MW Defensive POTW. The junior finished with a game-high 14 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles — the second of which he ripped out of CSU star running back Marvin Kinsey Jr.’s hands and brought back eight yards to the house. That gave the hosts a 34-24 lead with 9:32 remaining in the contest.
The league’s Offensive POTW was Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald, who completed 25 of 30 passes for 312 yards and four TDs in his team’s stunning 54-3 beatdown of Nevada on the road. It was the third-largest margin of victory in program history.
“It was great for David (Woodward) and great for Savon (Scarver) to get the recognition that they got in defensive player of the week and special teams player of the week honors,” Andersen said. “It’s well-deserved. They have some competition because I’m sure there were some other great performances out there last week that they were against, so congratulations to those guys.”
USU’s defense also had two other takeaways in the second half. Haney forced a fumbled that was recovered by Dalton Baker, and Tipa Galeai scooped up a fumble dislodged by Woodward. Troy Legefed Jr. also played a big role in Galeai’s fumble recovery and sparkled for the Aggies as he recorded 11 tackles, including 3.0 for a loss.
“Troy (Lefeged Jr.) and (Dalton) Baker were our defensive players of the game,” Andersen said. “They both played extremely well. The play that Baker made was a 60-yard sprint to recover a fumble. That’s an amazing football play. It wasn’t just that play that made him the co-player of the game for this week, but he played at a very high level. Those are potential season-changing plays, not just game-changing plays, but season-changing plays.”
Two other Aggies who played significant roles in last weekend’s triumph were tailback Gerold Bright and kicker Dominik Eberle. Bright bounced back from his first quarter fumble by rushing for a career-high 179 yards on a career-high 36 carries. It’s the most rushing attempts by an Aggie since Emmett White had 38 against Weber State in 2001. None of the senior’s attempts resulted in a loss of yardage, to boot.
“Gerold Bright had 179 yards rushing and his longest run is 15 yards,” Andersen said. “... That’s a tough young man battling for those yards and just grinding it out. Jaylen (Warren) was hurt, so he had to just keep on going and plugging when he was extremely tired, but he kept playing.”
Eberle booted challenging field goals of 42 and 48 yards — the second in the driving rain and with the laces in — and went 4 for 4 on extra points. The senior moved past Brad Bohn for first place among USU kickers with 290 career points. For his efforts, Eberle was selected as one of three Lou Groza Award “Stars of the Week.”
USU punter Pierce Callister did a superb job of bouncing back from the aforementioned block. Of the true freshman’s other six punts, four were downed inside CSU’s 20-yard line.
“There were some tremendous individual efforts in all three phases that gave us an opportunity to win a tough ball game in tough conditions,” Andersen said.
And through it all, the Aggies received a pretty substantial home field advantage from several thousand fans who stayed until the end, particularly from a raucous student section.
“That was really crazy,” said USU tight end Caleb Repp, who gave the Aggies their 24-21 halftime lead with a 40-yard TD reception. “I really didn’t think anyone would show up. To have that much support from the student section was cool.”