For the third time in four games this season, a bad second quarter ultimately spelled doom for Utah State's football team.
Fresno State dominated the Aggies on both sides of the ball in the second quarter, outscored the hosts 21-3 and coasted to a 35-16 victory on Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium. Saturday's Homecoming game was contested in front of no fans.
"Obviously, it wasn't the outcome we expected," said USU interim head coach Frank Maile said. "I thought we started the game super strong with special teams and the offense. One of the goals offensively was to establish the running game. Second to that offensively was to protect the football. Unfortunately, we were not able to do a good job with that. Two of those takeaways on the run game switched the momentum at crucial moments of us trying to punch in another touchdown."
It was a mixed bag for the Aggies offensively and defensively, but the negatives ultimately outweighed the positives. As a result, USU has lost its first four games of the season for the first time since getting off to a 0-10 start in 2007.
The Aggies (0-4) accumulated 343 yards of total offense — 128 more than they have in any other game this season — but 215 of those yards were gained on four plays. USU managed a mere 128 yards on its other 55 offensive snaps. Indeed, USU’s inability to sustain drives and convert on third downs (3 of 15) were big reasons why FSU enjoyed a 33:49 to 26:11 edge in time of possession.
For the first time this season, the Aggies passed for more than 100 yards, but it was still another rough outing for quarterback Jason Shelley, who completed 9 of 24 passes for 144 yards and was sacked six times. This is the second straight game FSU’s defense has come away with six sacks.
“Everyone will always see the blame goes on the O-line, but I think the quarterback can be a little bit better and his timing of getting the ball out depending on what the call is, so I think there's two parts to that,” Maile said. “It's not just the O-line. We've got to do a better job at the quarterback position of not putting himself in that situation. ... I think it's easy to point the finger at the big guys up front. Can they be better? Yeah, but I thought they did a good job today of giving (Shelley) the time he needed. But we've just got to do a better job overall with both the protection and the quarterback (making plays).”
Meanwhile, USU’s defense forced its first two turnovers of the season, but was once again victimized by explosive plays — just like it was against San Diego State and Nevada. Fresno State had touchdown passes of 59, 71 and 44 yards en route to its four consecutive performance of 400-plus yards of total offense. The Bulldogs (3-1) finished with a season-high 541 yards, and 422 of them were through the air.
“Defensively, I don’t think the score reflected how we played on the field once again,” USU linebacker AJ Vongphachanh said. “It starts with limiting the plays, the big plays, the explosive plays. ... Run wise, I think we were able to stop the run effectively, and then later in the game getting them off the field on third downs. But again it comes down to the bigger plays.”
It was also a challenging game for USU from a coaching standpoint. Head coach Gary Andersen was let go last Saturday, plus the Aggies were without offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder and co-defensive coordinator Stacy Collins, who both recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Maile refused to use that as an excuse.
“The bottom line is we have plenty of guys on this staff, so we've got good coaches, guys that this is not their first rodeo,” Maile said. “... And so for me personally, it is what it is this year with this situation, but the last thing we can do is panic, and so I refuse to do that. We've got plenty of coaches that can handle this job and handle the job description that's asked of them. And so coach (Dave) Schramm, I thought, did a hell of a job this week preparing the offense and coach Roc (Bellantoni) did a great job with the defense. And so the coaches in those rooms have rallied around (the team), especially the young coaches, man. I've got to tip my hat to those guys for doing everything they've been asked, above and beyond what they're asked to do in a normal week. And so I didn't see any problems with preparation this week (despite) what had happened.”
For the second time in as many weeks, the Aggies got off to an encouraging start on both sides of the ball. USU jumped out to a 9-0 lead last Thursday against Nevada and needed only one offensive play to score 13 points against FSU.
The Bulldogs got the ball first and promptly marched inside the red zone before Aggie safety Shaq Bond picked off a pass inside at the 14-yard line. It was Bond's fifth interception as an Aggie, as USU finally forced its first turnover of the season.
On the ensuing play, USU tailback Jaylen Warren burst through a massive hole up the middle and sprinted 86 yards to paydirt. It was far and away the team's longest offensive play of the season as the previous one was Deven Thompkins' spectacular 37-yard TD reception against San Diego State. The extra point was blocked.
Fresno State responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 9-yard reception by Jalen Cropper, giving the visitors a 7-6 lead with 4:46 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Bulldogs made the mistake of kicking the ball to Savon Scarver, who made a Bulldog miss and scampered 94 yards to the end zone. It was the All-American's sixth career kickoff return for a touchdown, which is only one shy of the NCAA and Mountain West record.
USU's 13-7 advantage was short-lived, though, as FSU bounced back by scoring a trio of touchdowns in the second quarter and took a 28-16 lead into the locker room. The Bulldogs racked up a whopping 394 yards of total offense in the first half, including 318 yards passing by Jake Haener, who was successful on 21 of his 27 attempts. Eight of Haener's passes went to Cropper, who racked up 148 yards and scored twice during the first two quarters.
The Aggies, who finished with 213 total yards in the opening half, had a golden opportunity to either tie the game or pull to within one point in the second quarter. Thompkins easily got behind the FSU secondary for a 45-yard reception from Shelley to the 1-yard line, which is the longest passing play for the Aggies this season. However, Shelley was stopped short of the goal line, and a terrible second-and-goal snap went over Shelley's head. USU had to eventually settle for a 38-yard Connor Coles field goal — his first as an Aggie — and the hosts trailed 21-16.
To the credit, the Aggies showed some resilience on defense in the second half as they limited the Bulldogs to 52 total yards in the third quarter. FSU scored its only points in the second half on a beautiful 44-yard in-stride strike from Haener to Cropper with 5:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“It was really just cleaning up our communication when it's all said and done,” Maile said. “We felt like we could play a little bit more man (coverage) in the second half and so that's some of the adjustments that we made.”
Unfortunately for the Aggies, they never got on track offensively after halftime. USU mustered up a measly 20 yards in the third quarter and only came close to scoring once — on its final possession of the contest. The Aggies got inside the 5-yard line, but then proceeded to go backward. Justin McGriff dropped a pass at the goal line earlier in the series.
Warren finished with a season-high 136 yards rushing on nine carries, while Thompkins led the way with 92 yards on three receptions. The junior made a spectacular 38-yard catch despite being interfered with in the fourth quarter, but that drive came to a crashing halt when Devonta’e Henry-Cole fumbled at the FSU 28-yard line.
USU’s defense came away with its second takeaway in the second half when former Sky View star Jake Pitcher pounced on a fumble forced by Vongphachanh in the red zone. For the second week in a row, Vongphachanh led the Aggies in tackles, this time with nine.
Dominic Tatum, Elijah Shelton and Kevin Meitzenheimer chipped in with eight tackles apiece for the Aggies, who got one sack each from Shelton, Marcus Moore and Cam Lampkin, who lit up Haener on a cornerback blitz in the opening half.
The Aggies received a nice lift from true freshman punter Stephen Kotsanlee, who placed three of his eight punts inside the FSU 20-yard line, including two inside the 5. Kotsanlee also booted a lovely 63-yarder out of his own end zone to flip the field position.
"He's big time now,” Maile said of Kotsanlee. “He's big time and if you ever meet and sit down and talk to him, he doesn't flinch. You know, none of that stuff really fazes him and he's been big time for us on flipping the field and setting up field position, and so we are fortunate that he's on our football team. And he's done a great job, man. He's a mentally tough kid.”
Ronnie Rivers rushed for 132 yards on 25 carries for the Bulldogs, who ended a three-game losing streak to the Aggies. Cropper racked up 202 yards on 10 receptions. The junior only caught eight passes during FSU’s first three games this fall.
• The Aggies had four players make their first career starters in defensive lineman James Hansen, tight end Bryce Mortenson, Tatum and true freshman cornerback Jakob Robinson. Hansen, Tatum and Mortenson, a former Sky View star, are all sophomores. Additionally, true freshman safety Breaker Mendenhall made his Aggie debut.
• FSU now leads the all-time series 18-13-1.