Mother Nature threatened to derail Utah State's home opener, and she was successful for a while.
When the Aggie football team was finally able to take the field following a lengthy weather delay, FCS power North Dakota threatened to embarrass the hosts.
The Fighting Hawks, ranked in the top 10 nationally in all three FCS Polls, stormed out to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter, but the Aggies didn't panic. Instead, USU made the necessary adjustments and outscored North Dakota 41-3 the rest of the way and rolled to a 48-24 victory in front of an announced crowd of 18,124 late Friday night at Maverik Stadium.
"Obviously, very frustrated with how we started," said Blake Anderson, who only became the fourth head coach in USU history to win his first two games at the helm and first since 1918. "... I love the way our guys fought back. Just a lot of resiliency. Our energy was positive and we made some adjustments, and clearly got things going and especially late to finish it the way we did. They stressed me out like crazy. I would love to see a game where we actually lead from the beginning and carry it, but maybe that's just not what we are. (But) very proud of them. I love the idea of being 2-0, but the task only gets tougher."
USU quarterback Logan Bonner played nearly the entire game and ended up amassing a career-high 390 passing yards on 21 of 33 attempts. The Arkansas State transfer matched his career high with four touchdown passes --- two of them to senior wide receiver Derek Wright --- as opposed to one interception. The Aggies accumulated 621 yards of total offense, which is tied for the 12th-largest tally in a single game in program history.
"Well, he did what he was supposed to do," Anderson said of Bonner. "He distributed the ball to guys that can run because he sure cannot as you saw tonight. I gave him a hard time about his running ability, although he was efficient. When we needed him to move the chains, he was able to do so. You know, this (offense) is built on getting the ball to the right guys and making the defense make some decisions in terms of how they're going to play, and I felt that when we needed to in some key situations ... he made some big throws."
USU's defense bounced back after an awful first quarter and held North Dakota to fewer than 100 yards for the majority of the second half. The Fighting Hawks did march inside the red zone in garbage time in the fourth quarter, but Aggie standout linebacker Justin Rice came through with his second interception of the game, and hurdled a North Dakota player in the process. North Dakota did finished with 442 total yards, but 195 of them were in the first quarter.
"The defense came out kind of sluggish in the first quarter," Rice said. "It's not the brand of football that we play and they kind of threw the whole playbook at us. We weren't very disciplined with our eyes, but we knew if we settled down and trusted the process, trusted our discipline, we knew that things were going to start going our way. So that's what we did in the second, third and fourth quarters. We really stayed true to our eyes and stayed true to what we believe in, which is running to the ball, having good discipline and playing our assignments."
Back-up signal caller Andrew Peasley provided the final exclamation point for the hosts with an explosive 59-yard scamper to paydirt. The Aggies went off for 21 points in the fourth quarter to turn a nailbiter into a blowout.
Deven Thompkins had another huge game for the Aggie offense as he hauled in eight receptions for a career-high 172 yards. Thompkins picked up a massive block from fellow wideout Justin McGriff early in the third quarter and turned on the jets for a 75-yard catch and run to the end zone down the east sideline. This gave the hosts their first lead of the game at 27-24, and it's a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"That touchdown by DT was obviously electric," Wright said. "The dude can fly. What some people might not have noticed about that play was the blocking by Justin. I mean, he went and just demolished the corner and gave DT the sideline."
The Aggies captured a two-possession advantage at 34-24 with 9:44 remaining in the fourth quarter on a tough-minded 2-yard TD run by Calvin Tyler Jr. on a crucial fourth-and-goal play. USU was unable to convert on fourth and goal on its previous drive.
Utah State's advantage ballooned to 41-24 less than three minutes of game time later on a beautiful 41-yard bomb from Bonner to an in-stride Wright in the southwest corner of the south end zone. In was very reminiscent of Wright's scoring reception from Henry Colombi during the 2019 campaign.
"Yeah, it was a lot of fun," Wright said of his two-touchdown evening. "... You know, it's been fun having a bigger role on offense on our team this year, being able to help out more. And, at the end of the day, our coaches are making the right calls for us to make those big plays, so credit to them."
Wright finished with 73 yards on four receptions, which matched his career high from last week's memorable 26-23 triumph over Washington State on the road. Bowling also came through with a career-best performance as he amassed 118 yards on six catches.
Tyler Jr. once again was the top performer on USU's balanced, yet potent rushing attack. The Oregon State graduate transfer finished with 72 yards on 14 carries as the Aggies gained more than 200 yards for the second straight game --- 217 in total on 38 attempts.
Rice led the way defensively with nine tackles and his aforementioned two INTs. Michigan graduate transfer Hunter Reynolds, who started at safety for an injured Shaq Bond, matched Rice with nine tackles.
When the game finally started --- following an hour-plus lightning delay, coupled with the stadium lights going off for more than 10 minutes --- both teams came out swinging, especially North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks found paydirt on their first three possessions and really opened up the playbook in the process. Case in point: All three drives ended in passing touchdowns by three different players. The visitors were successful on a pair of trick plays during the stretch, which produced a whopping 195 yards of total offense for the visitors in the first quarter alone.
Meanwhile, the Aggies put together a seven-play, 85-yard touchdown march on their first possession to pull even at 7-7. Bonner found a wide open Brandon Bowling over the middle of the field for a 53-yard catch and sprint to the end zone. It was a career-long reception for Bowling, who a graduate transfer playing his fifth season of college football.
However, the Aggies stalled in their next possession and went three and out. The Fighting Hawks then proceeded to race out to a 21-7 lead late in the opening quarter.
Just when North Dakota threatened to take the game over, USU bounced back offensively and defensively. Unfortunately for the Aggies, two of their next three drives ended in field goals instead of touchdowns, and the Fighting Hawks were able to take a 21-20 advantage into the half.
Connor Coles booted field goals of 26 and 37 yards for the Aggies, sandwiched around a 4-yard TD reception by a diving Derek Wright, who caught the ball despite being interfered with. North Dakota was whistled for a pass interference call on a Bonner pass to Thompkins in the end zone on fourth and three --- two plays before Wright's TD.
Both teams advanced the pigskin at will in the opening half as the Aggies racked up 261 total yards, which was only seven more than the Fighting Hawks.
North Dakota starting quarterback Tommy Schuster torched the USU secondary to the tune of 191 yards on 14 of 17 passing during the first 30 minutes of action. Bonner threw for 186 yards in the opening half. Schuster ended up throwing for a career-best 348 yards on 29 of 43 passing.
USU had a chance to take the lead at the end of the half when safety Dominic Tatum tipped a Schuster pass and it was intercepted by Rice. USU had the ball at midfield with one minute remaining, but promptly went three and out. Peasley replaced Bonner at quarterback on that possession, and it was his first action of the contest.
Captaining the Aggies for their home opener were junior right tackle Jacob South, senior wide receiver Derek Wright, junior striker Ajani Carter, junior safety Hunter Reynolds and senior defensive end Nick Heninger.
HONORING THE TROOPS
The Aggies honored the 13 American service men and women who were killed in an airport suicide bombing in Afghanistan on Aug. 26 by reserving 13 seats on the east side of the stadium. Next to each seat was an USU helmet with a American flag emblazoned on the U-State logo, and a picture of each American who lost their life.
* This was USU's 14th straight victory over a FCS program. The Aggies' last loss to a FCS loss was a 28-27 nailbiter at home against Idaho State in 2000.
* This was USU's first-ever game against not only North Dakota, but a team from the Missouri Valley Conference.
* USU has prevailed in 20 of its last 24 games on Merlin Olsen Field.
* The Aggies have won 10 consecutive games in the month of September.
* Coles is now a perfect 8 for 8 on field goal attempts during his time in Logan.