There are a few reasons why the Aggies have started off the 2021 college football season with back-to-back victories, and one of the biggest ones has been their ability to convert in fourth-down situations.
Utah State picked up a first down on 6 of 8 fourth-down plays in wins against Washington State and North Dakota. More importantly, the Aggies ended up scoring points on all six of those possessions, including touchdowns on four occasions.
In their come-from-behind 26-23 triumph over the Cougars, a 9-yard pass from Andrew Peasley to Kyle Van Leeuwen in a fourth-and-6 situation led to a third-quarter field goal by Connor Coles. On USU’s game-winning drive, Logan Bonner found Calvin Tyler Jr. in space for a 7-yard gain on fourth and three.
A week later, the Aggies were able to overcome a shaky start in their home opener against the Fighting Hawks in large part because of their prowess in pivotal fourth-down situations. A 9-yard run by Tyler Jr. on fourth and 1 ultimately led to USU’s first touchdown of the contest.
Elelyon Noa moved the pile forward just enough for the Aggies to convert on fourth and 1 in the second quarter. That drive resulted in a field goal by Coles.
Later in the second quarter, the Aggies were the beneficiaries of a pass interference call on a fourth-and-three play. That possession culminated with a contested 4-yard scoring strike from Bonner to Derek Wright, paring USU’s deficit to 21-20.
USU was unsuccessful on a fourth-and-goal play in the third quarter, but was undaunted in a similar situation in the fourth quarter. A strong second surge by Tyler Jr. resulted in a 2-yard scoring run on fourth and goal, giving the Aggies their first two-possession led of the game.
“I told the guys before the season (that) we’re going to be calculated while being aggressive,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said of his team’s success on fourth downs. “... There were a couple of tough decisions the other night whether to take the points or take the chance to score (a TD) and ... with the exception of one, I felt like the offense paid dividends. It’s stressful, not really where I want to be all the time, but it’s something that we talk a lot about, we prepare for and we take a calculated but aggressive approach in that area.”
FOURTH QUARTER SUCCESS
In his first press conference prior to the start of fall camp, Anderson raved about how hard his players worked on their fitness during the summer. Based on how they’ve performed so far in the fourth quarter, the Aggies certainly appear to be well conditioned.
USU outscored Washington State 15-3 in the fourth quarter and enjoyed a huge 143-27 edge in total offense. The Aggies were even more explosive in the final quarter a week later as they racked up 216 yards and outscored the Fighting Hawks, 21-0.
“Coach A, he always emphasizes that we need to play hard and out-effort every single opponent we play, and that comes with having coach Paul Jackson as the strength and conditioning coach,” USU defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said. “He’s always emphasizes winning the fourth quarter. When the other team may be tired, we won’t be that team. That’s why we practice so fast paced and so hard, so I feel like that has to do with us having so much grit.”
Well-conditioned athletes are generally more adept at making explosive plays late in games, and that was certainly the case for USU against North Dakota. Case in point: The Aggies had touchdowns passes of 75 and 41 yards in the second half, plus linebacker Justin Rice brought back an interception 36 yards.
Utah State came through with a wealth of chunk-yardage plays en route to amassing 621 total yards against North Dakota. The Aggies completed seven passes of 20 or more yards — four that went at least 41 yards — and had five rushes of 11 or more yards. Additionally, Tyler Jr. had four rushes of 8 or 9 yards.
Back-up quarterback Andrew Peasley provided the final exclamation point when he turned on the jets and sprinted 59 yards to paydirt with 2:14 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the hosts a 48-24 advantage.
“Nothing makes me happier than to see (Peasley) have success there at the end,” said Anderson, who praised his QB for having “a great attitude” despite his lack of playing time.
Unlike the Washington State game, Peasley saw limited playing time against North Dakota. No. 6 completed 2 of 4 passes for 14 yards against the Fighting Hawks, and only ran the ball on his explosive touchdown.
And while Bonner is clearly now the starting signal caller — he threw for a career-high 390 yards against North Dakota and tossed a career-best-matching four TDs — Anderson plans on giving Peasley opportunities to continue to make plays moving forward.
“We are going to keep him involved and I would like to say more than we did this past week,” Anderson said. “We’re going to find some opportunities to get him on the field, utilize his feet and throw the ball as well. He’s been a great leader. It was been a tremendously hard decision to play Logan over Peasley in the first place, but that’s where we moved, but we’re going to utilize what Peasley brings to the table.”
SHAQ BOND UPDATE
Utah State’s two-time all-Mountain West safety has not played since suffering a knee injury during the third quarter against Washington State. However, Bond, USU’s second-leading tackler last season with 47, will likely play this Saturday on the road against Air Force.
“I think really high,” Anderson said when asked about the likelihood of Bond returning to action this week. “He would have tried to play the other night. I just felt like it would have been a little bit early and would have been risky. He’s had a great recovery. I would anticipate him probably wearing a brace just for comfort and security, but I don’t think there’s a way you could keep him off the field on Saturday.”
Michigan graduate transfer Hunter Reynolds started in place of Bond against North Dakota and matched Rice with a nine-game nine tackles, including 0.5 for a loss. Seven different Aggies finished with at least half of a tackle for loss against the Fighting Hawks, led by Byron Vaughns’ 1.5.
Aggie defensive end Jaylin Bannerman currently ranks second in the Mountain West in tackles for loss with 3.5, while teammate Deven Thompkins is the league leader in receiving yards per game (133.0). Thompkins, who had the game-winning touchdown against WSU and the go-ahead TD against North Dakota, also ranks second in receptions an outing (8.0).