For the fourth time this season, the outcome of a Utah State football game was not decided in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, but that doesn't mean the program's second-to-last home game of the 2021 campaign lacked drama.
USU scored 17 points on its first three possessions of the contest, seemingly buried Hawaii under an avalanche of 21 third-quarter points and withstood some massive mistakes in the second half en route to a 51-31 victory over the Warriors on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 19,219 at Maverik Stadium.
More importantly, the Aggies achieved bowl eligibility for the ninth time in the last 11 seasons and remained in the driver's seat in the Mountain West's Mountain Division.
"I was excited with how the guys came out today and got the win," USU head coach Blake Anderson said. "You just don't take anything for granted at this point with your opponent or their record. After watching those guys beat Fresno (State), you knew what they were capable of. We didn't want that to be us today, didn't want to have any letdown, coming off of an emotional game last week. Our guys did a good job of responding.
"We challenged them several times this week, even as often as yesterday, about our focus. I was concerned about that going in and last night at dinner we hit them up again and they responded really, really well. We did some really silly things that made things a little more interesting than it should have been, but at the same time, we did some big things to respond when we needed to."
The Aggies (6-2, 4-1) dominated on both sides of the ball for large stretches of the game as they outgained the Warriors (4-5, 1-3) by 204 yards, won the turnover battle, 3-2, and enjoyed a big 34:20 to 25:40 advantage in time of possession. The Aggies accumulated 564 yards of total offense, including 406 yards through the air.
USU quarterback Logan Bonner was outstanding as he completed 21 of 30 passes for 361 yards and four touchdowns, vs. zero interceptions --- a noteworthy accomplishment against a ball hawking Hawaii defense that had 10 INTs in its first eight games. It's the first time this season Bonner hasn't thrown a pick, plus he also did a good job of withstanding a persistent pass rush by the Warriors. The Arkansas State transfer, who matched his single-game career high with his four TD tosses, was only sacked once.
"The guys wanted to go out and be consistent and really execute the game plan," Bonner said. "We had a really good plan and our guys gave me all the time to throw. The guys did great up front and the wideouts did great making plays. We just need to keep improving."
Likewise, USU was able to generate a lot of pressure on both of Hawaii's signal callers. The difference is the Aggies were able to parlay that pressure into a season-high 5.0 sacks.
Defensive end Byron Vaughns gave the Warriors fits all game long as he finished with three tackles for loss, including 2.0 sacks, forced a fumble and deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage that teammate Cash Gilliam picked off in the end zone. Poukesi Vakauta pounced on Vaughns' strip sack late in the fourth quarter to extinguish any slim chance of a Hawaii comeback.
Vaughns suffered an injury during fall camp and wasn't 100 percent healthy heading into the season, but has been an obviously difference maker over the last three games.
"When I was hurt, I wasn't worried about people seeing my potential, but I wanted to be a positive role model on the sideline," Vaughns said. "I know people look at me as a team leader on defense, so when I was hurt, I wanted people to see that positive influence on the team. Now that I'm back, people can see the kind of impact I have on the team. It's an amazing feeling."
Despite all of the big plays the Aggies were able to create, they still didn't slam the door until late in the fourth quarter. That's because the Warriors were able to turn a pair of massive mistakes by the Aggies into 15 quick points. The second miscue was a errant backward pass by backup QB Andrew Peasley that Eugene Ford scooped up and returned 60 yards to the house with 8:20 remaining in the fourth quarter.
All of a sudden a convincing 41-10 USU lead was slashed to 44-31. However, all of Hawaii's momentum came to a crashing halt on the very next play of Saturday's zany showdown.
The Warriors tried to trick the Aggies on the ensuing onside kick, which went straight down the middle of the field, but it was poorly executed. USU wide receiver Brandon Bowling snatched it and returned it 45 yards to paydirt.
Aggie defensive end Nick Heninger nearly provided the exclamation point a few minutes later when he brought back a fumble for a touchdown, but it was negated by a targeting penalty on cornerback Zahodri Jackson. Jackson laid the boom on Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro on a blitz to force the fumble.
Indeed, the Warriors finally caught a break in a game where they were on the wrong end of a couple of reviews. However, Hawaii didn't take advantage of its newfound fortune as backup signal caller Braydan Schager was intercepted by Monte McGary one play after Cordeiro was shaken up.
USU's defense gave up a couple of semi-explosive plays, but none that went for more than 29 yards. Hawaii finished with 360 total yards, but only 12 of them were on the ground. That's a huge accomplishment for an Aggie defense that ranks last in the Mountain West in rushing defense, especially when you consider Hawaii was averaging 175 yards on the ground heading into Saturday's game.
In addition to their 5.0 sacks and three forced turnovers, the Aggies came through with 12.0 tackles for loss by nine different players. The Warriors scored 31 points during the middle two quarters, but were shut out in the first and only managed six points in the fourth.
Indeed, it was an ideal start for the Aggies, who scored on their first three possessions for the first time this season and raced out to a 17-0 lead early in the third quarter. USU racked up 205 total yards on those three scoring marches.
It was also a memorable start for USU's defense, which forced the Warriors to go three and out on two of their first two possessions. Hawaii marched the ball all the way down the field on its second series, but back-to-back dynamic plays by Vaughns foiled the visitors. The Texas transfer blew up a second-and-goal play for a three-yard loss and then tipped the ensuing Cordeiro pass on third and goal at the line scrimmage, and the aforementioned play was snared in the end zone by Gilliam.
Elelyon Noa busted off a 36-yard run on USU's first play from scrimmage and eventually found paydirt from three yards out to give the hosts a 7-0 lead at the 10:04 mark of the opening quarter. Noa contributed with 52 yards on six carries on that series.
The Aggies extended their advantage to 14-0 with 3:31 remaining in the opening quarter when Bonner lofted a 45-yard pass to a wide-open Justin McGriff. It was a free play for USU, inasmuch as Hawaii was whistled for an illegal substitution penalty.
Connor Coles then booted a 40-yard field goal less than three minutes into the second quarter to give the hosts a 17-0 lead.
Hawaii bounced back with 10 straight points to pare its deficit to 20-10 in the second quarter. Matthew Shipley connected on a 49-yard field goal --- his 10th consecutive successful 3-pointer --- and Cordeiro found Dedrick Parson for a 29-yard scoring strike.
Bonner was shaken up on USU's last possession of the first half, but Peasley was able to quarterback the hosts into scoring range. Deven Thompkins came through with a sensational 45-yard catch in double coverage to get the Aggies inside the Hawaii 10-yard line. Thompkins also impressively high-pointed a 41-yard reception in tight coverage early in the third quarter. The drive stalled, though, and USU settled for a 22-yard Coles field goal and a 20-10 halftime lead.
The Aggies then proceeded to seemingly put the game away by scoring 21 unanswered points during the first 10-plus minutes of the third quarter. Bonner tossed touchdowns of 46, 21 and 14 yards to Derek Wright, Carson Terrell and Bowling, respectively, to give the hosts a 41-10 cushion.
The pass to Terrell was especially well-executed as it completely fooled Hawaii. The tight end didn't have a defender within 10 yards of him. Bowling broke a tackle on his reception, which was a pivotal third-and-seven play.
Hawaii clawed it way back into the game, though, as Cordeiro delivered a pair of touchdown passes to wide-open targets in the final three minutes of the third quarter to slice his team's deficit to a manageable 41-25 margin.
USU partially reclaimed the momentum on a 22-yard Coles field goal with 10:35 remaining in the fourth quarter to extend its lead to 44-25. Still, it was the second time in the game the Aggies were unable to fully capitalize inside Hawaii's 10-yard line.
The Warriors would get as close as 44-31 on the long fumble return, but never truly threatened to steal a rare win away from home.
"We played poorly, we coached poorly, but you've got to give them credit," Hawaii head coach Todd Graham said. "They stayed the course really well. Ten penalties, that's a record for me. I don't think I've ever had 10 penalties in a game. Nothing positive about that. We didn't play well and they did."
It was another monster performance from Thompkins, who amassed 176 yards on seven receptions. No. 13 is the first Aggie to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier in a season since Kevin Curtis accomplished that feat in 2001 and 2002. Thompkins has 1,099 yards on 63 catches and is on pace to shatter Curtis' single-season record of 1,531 yards (2001).
McGriff chipped in with five catches for a career-best 90 yards, while Wright added 83 yards on four catches. Noa finished with a career-high 111 yards on 23 rushes for USU, which converted on 11 of 18 third downs, compared to 6 of 15 for Hawaii.
Justin Rice led the Aggies with eight tackles, including 2.0 for a loss. Ajani Carter was second on the team with six tackles.
* USU improved to 11-6 all-time against Hawaii and has won the last six games in the series. The Aggies have outscored the Warriors 262-103 during those six contests.
* The Aggies have prevailed in 37 of their last 45 games with a 100-yard rusher.
* Captaining the Aggies on Saturday were defensive end Jaylin Bannerman, Bowling, Heninger, offensive lineman Alfred Edwards and wideout Jamie Nance.
* Both of Stephen Kotsanlee's punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.