Wyoming Utah St Football

Wyoming running back Xazavian Valladay (6) carries the ball in the second half against Utah State on Saturday in Logan. 

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Utah State's path to the Mountain West championship game just got a lot more rocky.

That's because the Cowboys ran roughshod on the Aggies during the middle two quarters as they accumulated 416 yards of total offense --- 289 on the ground --- and spoiled USU's Senior Night with a convincing 41-17 victory in a pivotal Mountain West football game on Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 20,547 at Maverik Stadium.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed with the outcome," USU head coach Blake Anderson said. "I was worried all week about our ability to match up to their style of play, their size, and we did not really in any area. ... We saw their best game today, I think, in most areas."

USU was in the driver's seat to capture the Mountain Division title, but had no answer for a rejuvenated Wyoming offensive attack, plus was burned on a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Cowboys were only averaging 22.1 points and 342.0 yards an outing heading into Saturday's game, but exploded for a season-high 604 yards, plus they finished with their third-highest point tally of the 2021 campaign. In the process, Wyoming (6-5, 2-5 MW) became bowl eligible with one game left in the regular season.

“I thought it was our most complete game of the year," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said. "Utah State is a good football team and we really played well in all three phases of the game. We certainly had explosive plays on offense and on defense, we were going to plan to stop their run and get some pressure on the quarterback and challenge their receivers. Our guys really did a great job with that. In the kickoff part, there were some different things that we did that I thought were effective, so from a special teams standpoint, I felt like we held our own. It was obviously a big win for us."

Meanwhile, the Aggies (8-3, 5-2) had their five-game winning streak snapped and dropped into a first-place tie with Air Force (8-3, 5-2) and Boise State (7-4, 5-2) in the Mountain Division standings. USU can clinch a share of the division title next Friday morning in the road against a reeling New Mexico (3-8, 1-6) squad.

Nevertheless, the Aggies will need to beat the Lobos and hope the Broncos lose to West Division leader San Diego State next week in order to represent the Mountain Division in the Mountain West championship game. The Aggies can't win a three-way tiebreaker against BSU and AFA because they have two loses in divisional play, while the Broncos and Falcons only have one apiece. As it stands right now, AFA would advance to the MW title tilt if all three teams prevail in their regular season finales.

"We've got to recoup, refresh these guys on a short week and find a way to go win (game) number nine, and all become really big San Diego State fans," said Anderson, whose team went 3-3 at home this season. "I mean, that's all we can do. I think 9-3 would be obviously a huge accomplishment considering everything, but again we're just hoping we're able to find a way in that game and play better next week."

It was an entertaining first quarter as both teams scored a pair of touchdowns. However, it was the Cowboys who ultimately made the adjustments necessary to earn a much-needed win. The visitors outscored the hosts 20-0 in the second half --- 17-0 in the third quarter --- to turn a relatively competitive contest into a blowout.

The two teams combined for 528 yards of total offense --- 270 for Wyoming and 258 for USU. Wyoming quarterback Levi Wiliams threw for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 9 of 11 attempts in the opening half alone. The Cowboys only averaged 156.0 yards through the air during their first 10 games.

Wyoming jumped out to a 7-0 lead when Isaiah Neyor got behind the USU secondary for an easy 40-yard score. It was Neyor's 10th TD reception of the season.

The Aggies immediately bounced back on a well-executed slant from Logan Bonner to roommate Brandon Bowling for a 10-yard scoring strike in the back of the end zone. Bowling's third reception of the possession capped off a 11-play, 75-yard march.

USU's momentum was short-lived, though, because Wyoming's Cameron Stone brought back the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to the house with 3:25 remaining in the first quarter. Wyoming's previous long kickoff return this season was 37 yards.

The Aggies pulled even at 14-14 less than one minute later when Bonner lobbed up a 41-yard pass to Deven Thompkins in the end zone. USU racked up 172 yards of offense in the quarter.

Both teams then proceeded to trade turnovers to terminate promising series. USU running back Elelyon Noa fumbled while crossing the Wyoming 45-yard line. The Cowboys advanced the pigskin inside the Aggie 15-yard line, but safety Shaq Bond came through with a diving interception at the 2.

Indeed, the Aggies dodged a bullet, but they stagnated on their next two possessions by going 3 and out both times. Conversely, the Cowboys scored on their next two drives --- a nice 17-yard scoring catch by Joshua Cobbs, followed by a 28-yard field goal by John Hoyland to extend their advantage to 24-14 with 1:48 remaining in the second quarter.

A nice kickoff return by Savon Scarver gave the hosts a much-needed surge of momentum. USU wasn't able to fully capitalize, but it did get a 36-yard field goal from Connor Coles with seven seconds remaining in the quarter to pare its deficit to 24-17.

USU received the opening kickoff of the third quarter and promptly marched into Cowboy territory on a 34-yard run by Calvin Tyler Jr. Unfortunately for the Aggies, the drive fizzled out and, to compound matters, an errant snap prevented them from even attempting a field goal.

Wyoming then proceeded to take control for good on a 43-yard spring to paydirt by Titus Swen, who broke at least one tackle on the play. That was a reoccuring theme for the Aggies in the second half although, in all fairness, the Cowboys dominated on both sides of the trenches.

The Cowboys scored 10 more points on their way to amassing 241 total yards --- 201 on the ground --- in the third quarter. Hoyland split the uprights on a 24-yard field goal, followed by a 98-yard jaunt to the end zone by Swen, who was untouched on the dagger of a play. It was the longest rush in program history.

Hoyland connected on his third field goal of the contest, a 34-yarder with 6:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, to give the Cowboys their second-largest margin of victory this fall.

It was a very impressive second-half performance by Wyoming's defense, which limited the Mountain West leaders in total offense to 92 yards on 36 plays. The Aggies finished with 362 total yards, including a season-low 181 through the air. The Cowboys entered the game only giving up 162.6 yards passing an outing, which ranks fourth nationally.

"We knew they were a top five passing defense in the country, so we knew it was going to be a really big challenge for us," Bowling said. "They're really well coached on the defensive side of the ball and do really, really well in their coverage. Credit to them. They did a really good job and we didn't execute."

Ironically enough, USU also gained 181 yards on the ground, led by Tyler Jr.'s 109 on 18 carries. Bowling contributed with 60 yards on six receptions for the Aggies, who got 67 yards on five catches from Thompkins. Thompkins needed 91 yards to break Kevin Curtis' 20-year-old single-season record of 1,531 receiving yards.

Bonner completed 19 of 40 passes for 181 yards and the aforementioned two TDs, vs. zero interceptions. Andrew Peasley entered the game in the fourth quarter and was picked off on one of his two pass attempts.

Williams was extremely efficient for the Cowboys as he finished with 242 yards on 12 of 15 attempts. Neyor gained 125 yards on his five receptions.

Swen paced Wyoming's bruising rushing attack with 169 yards on 15 carries, followed by Xazavian Valladay's 145 on 21 attempts. The Cowboys tallied 362 yards on the ground, just shy of their season-best tally of 385 in a 31-17 victory over Colorado State.

"I think they did a really good job sticking to their game plan," Anderson said. "They checked to some favorable looks. I thought ... the offensive coordinator obviously gave (Williams) the opportunity to get into some bubbles that we struggled defending. We didn't tackle well and as the game worn on, I thought physically just their size and their physical nature, how they run the ball, it just got harder and harder for us to defend. But schematically, they did a good job of recognizing where the weaknesses in (our) scheme were and getting to plays that gave them advantages, which was obviously a huge concern coming into this (game)."

Wyoming linebacker Chad Muma, the Mountain West leader in tackles, finished with an impressive 17 tackles. Linebacker Justin Rice and safety Hunter Reynolds led the Aggies with 10 stops apiece.

Prior to the game, the Aggies honored 16 seniors in offensive lineman Demytrick Ali’ifua, defensive end Jaylin Bannerman, Bond, Bowling, linebacker Cash Gilliam, DE Nick Heninger, running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole, OL Maisen Knight, cornerback Kyle Mayberry, LB Kevin Meitzenheimer, defensive tackle Marcus Moore, WR Jordan Nathan, Rice, Scarver, tight end Carson Terrell and WR Derek Wright.

"Yeah, I hate that, I hate that for them," Anderson said of not sending the seniors out with a win in their home finale. "... I promise you they'll put this one on the shelf and they'll learn from it, but tonight was a night you wanted them to be able to celebrate with their families and really remember this one in a different way and, for that reason, it hurts. But great group of guys. I've said this all along.

"You know, a handful of guys came with us (from Arkansas State) or transferred in, but most of that group of guys were already here and could have left, or could have fought me all along the way in terms of how I wanted to run this program, and they did the exact opposite."

Indeed, Saturday's lose will surely string a lot, but the Aggies still have a golden opportunity to become the eighth team in school history to win nine games in a season --- a noteworthy accomplishment for a program that went 1-5 during the COVID-19 shortened season of 2020.

"I think a big part of it is staying true to our culture that we've built," Heninger said. "We've built it throughout this whole year together and it would be a shame to let some adversity splinter the team and the culture, and I don't believe that that's the kind of players and culture that we have down here. I'm confident in my teammates that we'll respond the right way."

NOTES

* USU still leads the all-time series with Wyoming, 40-27-4.

* The Aggies were shut out in a half for only the second time this season. They failed to score in the opening half against Boise State.

* USU fell to 70-41-3 all-time on Senior Day.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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