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It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Utah State’s football program, but the highs have far exceeded the lows so far.

What Blake Anderson has accomplished in his first year in Cache Valley has been nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider how disheartening the COVID-19 shortened campaign of 2020 was. For starters, USU’s then-new head coach was able to convince the lion’s share of the players to stick around, plus, with the help of his staff, persuaded wide receiver Deven Thompkins and striker Cash Gilliam to withdraw from the transfer portal and come back.

Anderson and his staff also coaxed a large number of athletes to sign with the Aggies from the transfer portal — guys who have made a considerable impact in 2021 like linebacker Justin Rice, quarterback Logan Bonner, running back Calvin Tyler Jr., wide receiver Brandon Bowling, offensive lineman Quazzel White, safeties Hunter Reynolds and Monte McGary and defensive ends Byron Vaughns and Patrick Joyner Jr.

It’s hard to believe Anderson and his staff were able to help propel this program to bowl eligibility before the month of November even began. It certainly hasn’t been easy as four of the Aggies’ six wins have been decided by four or fewer points, yet they are in the driver’s seat to represent the Mountain Division in the Mountain West championship game.

There are several reasons Utah State is on track to make it to the Mountain West title game for the second time since joining the conference prior to the 2013-14 academic year. Here are three encouraging trends that very well might launch the Aggies to their fourth season of double-digit wins in program history:

1. BONNER FINDING HIS GROOVE

Bonner was able to develop some immediate chemistry with Thompkins and Bowling, which should come as no surprise as the two were teammates at Arkansas State from 2016-20. Thompkins and Bowling were USU’s two primary weapons in the passing game early on, but other athletes have also emerged as of late.

Bonner has tossed a trio of touchdowns to Derek Wright and Justin McGriff this season, and all three of those athletes had big games in last Saturday’s 51-31 triumph over Hawaii at Maverik Stadium. Bonner completed 70 percent of his passes for 348 yards and a career-high-tying four touchdowns, vs. no interceptions. Wright and McGriff teamed up for 173 yards on nine receptions, and both wide receivers snared a lengthy scoring pass from Bonner.

It was also encouraging to see Aggie veterans Jordan Nathan and Carson Terrell factor into USU’s aerial attack last weekend. Both players caught two passes and Terrell, who like Nathan has been an impact performer since his freshman year, was targeted five times from his tight end position.

Wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo has done an outstanding job this season. Cefalo’s coaching, coupled with Bonner’s improved synergy among his various talented targets makes this Aggie passing attack very potent.

McGriff, Wright and Thompkins especially have made tremendous strides this season. Speaking of Thompkins, I’ve never seen a 5-foot-8 athlete high-point a football and make contested catches in traffic as well as this native of Fort Myers, Florida. The dynamic senior makes plays, quite frankly, guys half a foot taller don’t, and it’s been a joy to watch him this fall.

2. OTHER DEFENSIVE PLAYERS EMERGING

Early on it was quite apparent Rice, a first-team all-conference selection at Fresno State and Arkansas State and Dominic Tatum were USU’s best defensive players. Unfortunately for the Aggies, Tatum, an athletic, lengthy safety, went down with a potential season-ending injury in Week 3 against Air Force.

The Aggies relied on Rice probably a bit too much early in the season. The native of Modesto, California, led the team or tied for the top spot in tackles in each of the first four games, plus accounted for four of USU’s first five takeaways. Rice intercepted a pair of passes against North Dakota, and then came through with two monumental turnovers against Air Force — an INT in the end zone and a forced fumble late in the fourth quarter.

The only other Aggie to force a turnover over the first three games was cornerback Michael Anyanwu, and that was the crazy final play in the Washington State game, which featured a completed pass, followed by four laterals.

Fortunately for the Aggies, other defensive players have emerged as the season has progressed. For starters, safety Shaq Bond has paced USU in tackles in two of the last three contests, plus he picked off a pair of passes against UNLV en route to being selected as the MW Defensive Player of the Week.

Vaughns was a monster against Hawaii as he tipped a pass that was picked off by Gilliam, and forced a fumble on a strip sack that was smothered by Poukesi Vakauta. Vakautu also pounced on a fumble caused by Anyanwu against Colorado State.

Striker Ajani Carter contributed with impressive interceptions against Boise State and CSU, and McGary picked off a pass against Hawaii and emerged from the dogpile with the fumble Rice forced in the AFA game. Additionally, defensive linemen Nick Heninger, Hale Motu’apuaka and Marcus Moore are quietly putting together solid seasons for USU, which has finished on the plus side of the turnover margin in five of its eight games.

Rice doesn’t have to carry the Aggies anymore and that’s a big deal.

3. AGGIES ARE GIVING UP FEWER BIG PLAYS

USU currently ranks 10th out of 12 teams in the Mountain West in scoring defense (29.0 points per game) and total defense (435.1 yards per game). The Aggies have struggled in these two categories thanks in large part to their penchant of allowing explosive plays. For example, Air Force burned USU on scoring plays of 56 (pass), 55 (run), 51 (run) and 39 (run), plus the Falcons also executed a 59-yard pass that eventually resulted in a TD.

Additionally, BYU running back Tyler Allgeier made USU pay on scampers of 59 and 67 yards, plus the Aggies gave up a 43-yard pass to Puka Nacua in that game. UNLV’s Charles Williams busted off a 75-yard scoring run against the Aggies, while WSU’s Max Borghi found paydirt from 64 yards out. Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier completed two long passes against USU — a 69-yarder to Khalil Shakir and a 55-yarder on a screen to Cyrus Habibi-Likio.

To their credit, the Aggies have seemingly turned a corner in this department over the past two weeks. USU allowed a 43-yard pass against CSU, but the Rams didn’t have any other plays of more than 28 yards. Hawaii’s longest pass last Saturday was 29 yards and the visitors only mustered up one run of 10 or more yards — an 11-yarder by tailback Dedrick Parson.

Forcing the opposition to drive the length of the field to score will also be paramount to USU’s success moving forward.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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