Six times during the 2021 college football season the Aggies have managed to overcome a double-digit deficit and find a way to win.
Unfortunately for Utah State, the was no second-half magic in its home finale last Saturday night at Maverik Stadium. Instead, Wyoming dominated USU in the trenches after halftime — in all fairness, from the second quarter on — and left Cache Valley with a convincing 44-17 victory. The Cowboys outscored the Aggies 20-0 in the final two quarters and enjoyed a huge 334-104 advantage in total offense.
USU must now defeat New Mexico on Friday afternoon in Albuquerque and hope San Diego State prevails at home against Boise State in order to represent the Mountain Division in the Mountain West championship game. USU (8-3, 5-2 MW), BSU (7-4, 5-2) and Air Force (8-3, 5-2) are all tied for the top spot in the division with one game remaining for all three programs. The Aggies aren’t in a position to win a three-way tiebreaker, but they would advance in a tiebreaker against the Falcons.
“Some of my biggest fears came true on the field,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “We have struggled in the past against physical teams, big, physical teams. We saw it against BYU and Boise (State). At times we saw it even in wins against Air Force and UNLV and Colorado State. I was concerned about some of our matchups and we just didn’t handle some of those physical matchups really well. We needed some things to go our way and they just didn’t. They made all of the plays and we made mistakes that were at critical times.”
Quite frankly, the Aggies went from playing their best game of the season — a 48-17 road triumph over defending Mountain West champion San Jose State the previous Saturday — to arguably their worst. The second half against Wyoming was surely USU’s worst half this fall. Perhaps Anderson summed it up best when he said “we didn’t play very well in any of the three phases at all.”
The Aggies fumbled the ball away on a promising possession in the first half and made two massive mistakes on special teams. USU gave up a kick return for a touchdown for the first time this season, plus was foiled on an errant snap that prevented Connor Coles from kicking a very makeable field goal early in the third quarter. A field goal on that series would have pared USU’s deficit to 24-20.
On the flip side, the Cowboys (6-5, 2-5) seemingly put together their best performance of the season and suggested why they were predicted to finish second in the Mountain Division in the conference’s preseason media poll. Wyoming amassed 604 yards of total offense — 127 more than any other game this season, and 262 more than its season average — and limited the Mountain West leaders in total offense to a measly 2.88 yards per play after halftime. USU accumulated 258 yards in the first half, including 172 on 22 plays in the opening quarter.
“I think they, on a play by play basis, outexecuted us pretty consistently, so hats off to them,” USU safety Hunter Reynolds said. “They had a great game plan. They executed their game plan and I just think when you’re giving up big plays, when you’re giving up chunk plays — 10, 15 yards — what it seems like pretty consistently, it’s really hard to win a game like that, especially coupled with miscues on special teams and the offense not scoring the way they normally score.”
More often than not, Wyoming’s offensive success is predicated on methodical marches down the field. However, none of the Cowboys’ scoring drives against the Aggies took more than eight plays. That’s because, as Reynolds said, the visitors were too busy burning the hosts with chunk-yardage plays. Case in point: Wyoming had runs of 21, 43, 33, 98 and 19 yards, and completed passes of 40, 23, 17, 19, 18, 34 and 35 yards.
Conversely, the Aggies only had one explosive play in their passing game — a 41-yard touchdown by Deven Thompkins late in the first quarter. Both teams scored 14 points in the opening quarter, but the Cowboys won the final three quarters by a 30-3 margin.
“Because of the rushing yards, I don’t know if it looked as obvious, but we didn’t win any 50-50 balls, with the exception of DT’s catch in (the end zone),” Anderson said. “We didn’t win any other 50-50 balls on offense and we lost most of those battles on defense as well.”
The Cowboys entered Saturday’s game only averaging 156.0 yards an outing through the air, but sophomore quarterback Levi Williams threw for 242 yards on just 15 attempts as he completed 12 of them — 13 if you count an interception by USU safety Shaq Bond at the Aggie 2-yard line. Wyoming inflicted even more damage on the ground as it racked up 362 yards on 49 carries (7.4 yards per carry). Even without Titus Swen’s program record 98-yard scoring scamper, the Cowboys still averaged 5.5 ypc.
“We’ve known all along from Day 1, the beginning of the season, that there were some physical matchups that we were going to struggle with until we can recruit bigger, develop bigger, bring some guys along,” Anderson said. “We’ve been able to mask it and survive it a lot of weeks. There were some games we obviously didn’t. ... This particular game, coach (Ephraim) Banda and I talked — and he’s frustrated — if we played them again tomorrow, I would adjust some matchups, adjust some personnel packages so that we could be a little bit stronger at the point (of attack), and it might reduce some of those explosives that we gave up. But that’s what you learn first time through the league. You really don’t know exactly what you’re going to see or what it’s going to look like. We’ll know a lot more in the future.”
The Aggies were effective running the ball as they averaged 5.8 ypc and tallied 181 yards, led by Calvin Tyler Jr.’s 109 yards on 18 carries. It was the Oregon State transfer’s best performance since early in the season as he has been banged up since USU’s Week 5 loss to BYU.
However, USU’s dynamic aerial attack was virtually non-existent from the second quarter on against Wyoming’s renowned pass defense. The Cowboys, who broke up seven passes Saturday and intercepted USU back-up quarterback Andrew Peasley late in the fourth quarter, entered the contest ranked fourth nationally in pass defense (162.6 ypg).
Aggie signal caller Logan Bonner took some pretty vicious shots, especially in the second half, and only completed 19 of 40 passes for 181 yards and two TDs, vs. zero INTs. In addition to his aforementioned TD to Thompkins, Bonner also hooked up with Brandon Bowling on a 10-yard scoring strike in the first quarter. USU entered the contest ranked 15th nationally in passing offense (315.2 ypg).
“There’s some really good defensive fronts in this league and, at times, we look really, really good (at the offensive line position); at times we get exposed in some one-on-ones,” Anderson said. “I thought Wyoming did a phenomenal job of hitting us. They didn’t sack us but once, I think, but got to (Bonner) way too much.”
Indeed, it was a rough evening for the Aggies, who had their five-game winning streak terminated and were given a reminder of how unpredictable college football can be on a week-by-week basis.
“Like you said, it’s hard to win, especially in conference play, It’s always hard to win, so that’s why we’re thankful for every win we get,” Tyler Jr. said. “As far as it being difficult, I think we just got outplayed, but we attack every day like it’s a difficult challenge or whatever. (But) we just got outexecuted. That’s all it was, but we’ve had the same mindset from the first week (until now).”
Justin Rice and Reynolds led the way with 10 tackles apiece for the Aggies, who didn’t record any sacks for the first time this season and only had four tackles for loss. Linebacker Chad Muma, a Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year candidate, made 17 tackles.