Moving the ball was really never a problem for Utah State’s football program in season-opening games against Washington State and North Dakota, but the Aggies certainly weren’t as efficient as they could have been.
Case in point: USU settled for a trio of field goals against Washington State, plus two more against North Dakota. Additionally, the Aggies were unsuccessful on a fourth-and-goal play in the third quarter against the Fighting Hawks. In those two games, USU only scored touchdowns on 4 of 9 trips inside the red zone.
Fortunately for the Aggies, they were able to maximize their opportunities to score points in their Mountain West opener against Air Force, which is arguably the biggest reason they left Falcon Stadium with a hard-fought 49-45 victory. USU found paydirt on all three of its trips inside the red zone, plus never attempted a field goal.
When the dust finally settled at last Saturday’s wildly entertaining showdown, the Aggies had turned seven of their precious 12 possessions into touchdowns. In the process, USU racked up 628 yards of total offense, which the 12th-highest single-game tally in program history.
The gaudy statistics hardly mattered to USU head coach Blake Anderson, though. The offensive efficiency is ultimately what allowed his team to prevail.
“Yards are great, stats are great, but they’ll lie to you,” Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “What matters is points and touchdowns, specifically. ... It’s something that we’re going to have to consistency be good at as we move forward, and the challenge is what happens when you’ve got 22 people in a very confined space (and) can you get it in the end zone. We did that this week, (but) we’ve got to keep doing that.”
Arguably the most encouraging trend for the Aggies during their first 3-0 start since 1978 has been their ability to close out a game. USU won the fourth quarter by a 15-7 scoreline against AFA and has now outscored the opposition by a 51-10 margin this season.
The Aggies struggled mightily defensively against the Falcons as they gave up 619 total yards on a whopping 8.3 yards per play. Explosive yards were the biggest culprit as USU allowed passes of 59 and 56 yards, and rushes of 55, 51, 39, 33 and 33 yards.
Nevertheless, the Aggies found a way to finish strong defensively. The Falcons scored on 6 of 8 possessions during the first three quarters and five of them were touchdowns, but were limited to one touchdown and no field goals on four fourth-quarter drives.
Defensive back Byron Vaughns batted away a pass at the line of scrimmage to give the Aggie D a three and out early in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Michael Anyanwu came through with a huge tackle for no gain on a third-and-2 pitch later in the quarter, and standout linebacker Justin Rice ripped the ball away from AFA quarterback Haazig Daniels with 2:30 remaining for USU’s second takeaway of the contest.
“I’m really proud of how the guys continued to fight,” Anderson said. “We’ve kind of said the same things three weeks in a row. Things didn’t go perfectly, we made a lot of mistakes, especially defensively, just dealing with the triple option. We were concerned about it all week and we actually slowed down some of the key things that they typically have success with. ... But I’m just really, really proud of the way we played in the fourth quarter. We won both sides of the ball there. The defense made some stops when they had to, forced some punts, created turnovers. Those had obviously been really hard to come by earlier in the game. At times we looked like we really didn’t have an answer defensively, but guys kept playing.
“The effort level was phenomenal all the way through and we made huge plays when we had to. I’ve got to give the offensive unit credit for being able to move the ball and get the ball in the end zone, and not settling for field goals, moving the ball on third down, on fourth down, whatever it took to get the win. So it was a team win, hands down.”
RICE HONORED AGAIN
Although the Aggies struggled defensively, Rice did not. Quite frankly, the graduate senior was a huge reason why USU rallied from a double-digit deficit for the third time in as many weeks.
In addition to his aforementioned forced fumble, No. 3 matched his career-high with 14 tackles — 2.0 of them for a loss — and came through with an interception in the end zone late in the first quarter. Had the Falcons scored a touchdown on that drive, they would have extended their lead to 17-7. Instead, Rice made a memorable play and the Aggies promptly orchestrated an 11-play, 92-yard march to paydirt.
For his efforts, Rice was selected as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week for the second straight time. Rice, who had a pair of picks in USU’s home opener against North Dakota, is the first Aggie to intercept a pass in back-to-back games since DJ Williams in 2018.
Rice is now tied for second in the conference and nationally in INTs an outing with 1.0. The former high school star running back is also ranked fourth in the MW and 14th among FBS players in tackles per game with 10.0.
Anderson raved about Rice’s leadership and game-in-and-game-out preparation during Monday’s press conference.
“This was a lot to ask this past week,” Anderson said. “It’s a lot to ask to defend what we see (from Air Force) in terms of the triple (option) and all of the things they’re able to bring at you, and he was in the right spot most of the day to make huge plays — none bigger than the strip fumble late to get the ball back to our offense. But I’ve come to expect it from him, but I am very proud that he’s taken to another level physically, being prepared, in better shape and I think mentally better prepared going into the games to know exactly what he’s going to see and to truly be kind of like having a coach on the field.”
Starting safety Dominic Tatum suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury in the second half against the Falcons and did not return. Anderson was asked about the status of the 6-foot-2 junior Monday and did not have good news.
“(He) is likely out for quite some time, if not the rest of the season,” Anderson said. “We don’t have all the details, but it was a significant injury. We’ll see how it goes. Prayers to him and he’s a great kid, and has worked hard to get where he’s at.”
Tatum is currently USU’s second-leading tackler with 21. No. 23 is also tied for second on the squad with two passes broken up.
USU starting quarterback Logan Bonner was shaken up early in the third quarter after taking a late hit on his superb 24-yard TD pass to Justin McGriff. The Arkansas State transfer returned for one series later in the game, but Andrew Peasley engineered USU’s offense for most of the second half.
The Air Force player was not flagged on the play, much to the chagrin of Anderson. Fortunately for the Aggies, Anderson said Bonner will “be ready to go” for Saturday morning’s showdown against Boise State at Maverik Stadium.
“I think it was clearly late,” Anderson said of hit Bonner took. “I submitted it. I don’t know what kind of response we’ll get, but it doesn’t do a whole lot of good after the fact. Luckily, he’s going to be OK. He’s going to be sore for a few days, (but) I would expect by Saturday he’ll be ready to spin it.”
Bonner completed 21 of 34 passes for 253 yards and two TDs, vs. one INT, against the Falcons. Peasley sparkled in the second half as he threw for 195 yards and a trio of TDs on 10 of 15 passing, plus he had a Houdini-like two-point conversion run in which he somehow slipped a tackle at the 8-yard line.