Aggies put clamps on Wolf Pack at home

It wasn’t quite the offensive performance the Aggies were hoping for coming off their second bye week of the season, but it didn’t matter.

That’s because Utah State’s defense played lights out in its 36-10 victory over Nevada to remain undefeated in Mountain West play last Saturday night at Maverik Stadium. The Aggies also shined on special teams en route to their 10th straight win on Merlin Olsen Field.

“The defense did some really good things,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said at Monday’s press conference. “We knew we had to control the run game and try to get the quarterback off his mark. We were successful in those areas, which was great to see. The defense ran to the ball and played good team defense.”

Nevada (4-3, 1-2 MW) received the opening kickoff and promptly marched 75 yards in 10 plays before USU bowed up and limited the visitors to a 23-yard Brandon Talton field goal.

It was the wake-up call the Aggies (4-2, 3-0) needed as the Wolf Pack didn’t pick up a single first down and managed a measly 32 yards the rest of the first half. Nevada’s final 10 possession of the opening half consisted of nine three and outs — one that ended in an interception by USU safety Shaq Bond — and a safety.

USU’s defense limited Nevada to 326 total yards — although 75 of them came in garbage time when the Aggies were substituting freely — and only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. The Aggies broke up a season-high nine passes, finished with a trio of sacks, picked off a pair of passes and forced two fumbles.

Junior college transfer punter Christopher Bartolic came up big in his first extensive playing time for the Aggies. The junior punted seven times against the Wolf Pack and five of them were downed inside the visitors’ 20-yard line. One of the them, downed at the Nevada 1-yard line in the first quarter by Deven Thompkins, resulted in a USU safety when Justus Te’i tackled 2018 Mountain West Freshman Toa Taua in the end zone on the first play following the punt.

Bartolic and true freshman Pierce Callister are currently battling it out for the starting punter position.

“It was Chris’ time, and he did a nice job last week,” Andersen said. “Pierce has done some good things, which we know also. It goes back and forth a little bit. With (special teams) coach (Stacy) Collins, they both have opportunities to kick during the week, and coach Collins felt it was Chris’ opportunity this past week, and he took advantage of it, which was good to see.”

As well as Bartolic fared, USU’s biggest special teams play was made by consensus All-American Savon Scarver, who currently ranks first among all FBS players in kickoff return average (43.4). After the Wolf Pack booted their aforementioned field goal, they made the mistake of kicking off to Scarver, who busted off a 101-yard return to paydirt right up the middle.

It was Scarver’s second kickoff return to the house this season and fifth of his career, which is a new program record. Kevin Robinson had four kickoff returns for touchdowns from 2004-07. Scarver is only one of two players nationally with a pair of kickoff returns for TDs in 2019.

“I hate to give all the credit to Savon (Scarver), but he’s a great returner,” said running back Gerold Bright, who is typically always USU’s second kickoff returner alongside Scarver. “He set the record for five kickoff returns for touchdown in (his career), so that is amazing and for me to be on the field when he’s doing that, I am honored. I am honored to block for him and do what I am supposed to do to help make him great.”

Later in the game, Nevada gave Scarver another opportunity to bring back a kickoff. Did this surprise Bright?

“I’m super surprised,” Bright said. “When Nevada kicked it to him the second time, I was thinking, ‘Whaaaaaat?’ I guess they were thinking he can’t do it twice.”

Bright never got the chance to return a kickoff against the Wolf Pack, but he made his presence felt offensively in a big way. The senior rushed for 117 of his 126 yards in the second half and scampered 67 and 9 yards, respectively, to paydirt in the fourth quarter. It was Bright’s seventh 100-plus-yard rushing performance as an Aggie.

Fellow tailback Jaylen Warren returned from his injury and gained 71 of his 73 yards on the ground in the first half. USU gashed a solid Nevada rush defense to the tune of 244 yards on 44 attempts (5.5 yards per carry). The Wolf Pack entered the game having only allowed 3.8 ypc.

Unfortunately for the Aggies, they once again struggled to establish themselves through the air. Quarterback Jordan Love competed 13 of 31 passes for 169 yards and was intercepted once. The junior did connect with tight end Caleb Repp on a nice 13-yard scoring strike in the second quarter. Both teams dropped a handful of passes during what proved to be a pretty frigid evening.

Additionally, it was an uneven performance by USU’s offense. The hosts gained 144 yards in the second quarter and 174 in the fourth, but only managed 56 in the opening quarter and 44 in the third. The Aggies racked up 418 total yards, but only converted on 4 of 16 third downs.

“As I say over and over, my expectations for this offense, for me, for other individuals in this offense is very high, and I’m not going to lower the standard for anyone,” Bright said. “This is my last go-round, my senior year, and I can’t afford to be let down, or let myself down or let my teammates down, so I hold that standard high. People like to say celebrate the win, yes celebrate the win, but it’s time to get back in the lab and focus on everything we can correct that we can do a lot better.”

On the flip side, USU was consistent defensively nearly the entire contest. In addition to Bond, the Aggies got an interception from linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer, plus true freshman cornerback Cam Lampkin had one wiped away by a penalty and defensive back Andre Grayson probably should have picked off his second pass of the season.

And while Grayson didn’t record a INT, he was phenomenal against the Wolf Pack. The sophomore finished with career-best outputs in tackles (nine), tackles for loss (2.0), sacks (1.0), forced fumbles (two) and passes broken up (three). No. 21 lit up Nevada signal caller Malik Henry on a blitz, forcing a fumble deep in Wolf Pack territory that the visitors were fortunate to pounce on.

Grayson has started four of six games this season after making zero starts and only four total tackles in 2018. What are the biggest strides the sophomore has made in 2019?

“Last year, going into fall camp, I actually was in a playing role and I was starting, and then I ended up not,” Grayson said. “I ended up way down on the depth chart, and that was an internal thing. I just had to really realize that I had to focus. I worked more with my teammates, I took better advice, I listened more, I just keyed in more. Working with my teammates was a big part. I get advice from DJ (Williams) all the time.”

USU NOTES

• Senior kicker Dominik Eberle booted field goals of 29 and 32 yards and had a 47-yarder smack off the left upright. Eberle now has 307 career points, which is only one behind USU record-holder Robert Turbin.

• USU and Boise State are the only Mountain West teams still undefeated in conference play. The Broncos are also 3-0.

• Since joining the MW, the Aggies are 17-4 against teams from the West Division.

• USU’s three previous games against Nevada were decided by four points or fewer.

USU-BYU GAME

USU’s home game against BYU on Saturday, Nov. 2, will start at 8 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

MW WEEKLY AWARDS

Air Force backup quarterback Mike Schmidt was selected as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after completing 5 of 6 passes for 147 yards and rushing for 120 yards and a trio of TDs on 14 carries in his team’s huge 56-26 road triumph over Hawaii. Schmidt, who replaced the injured Donald Hammond III on AFA’s sixth offensive play of the evening, had a career-best 75-yard TD pass and a career-long 61-yard run.

Fresno State linebacker Justin Rice was named the league’s Defensive POTW after contributing with 10 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in the Bulldogs’ 56-27 home win over UNLV. The junior scooped up a fumble and returned it for an 18-yard TD.

San Diego State punter Brandon Heicklen was tabbed the MW’s Special Teams POTW after averaging 45.8 yards on five punts in his team’s 27-17 victory at San Jose State. Four of the senior’s five punts were downed inside the SJSU 20-yard line, including three inside the 2.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

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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