For the second straight year, a heavily favored Utah State squad found itself in a dogfight with Mountain West rival Colorado State.
Fortunately for the Aggies, they didn't have to sweat it out in the in the final few seconds of the game like they did a year ago. David Woodward made sure of that.
With less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the All-American linebacker ripped the ball away from CSU star running back Marvin Kinsey Jr. and returned it eight yards to paydirt, giving the Aggies a two-possession lead and momentum for good. USU's football team went on to beat CSU, 34-24, in front of an announced crowd of 20,017 on a rainy, cold Saturday night at Maverik Stadium.
USU's Homecoming game was moved back 30 minutes due to a lightning delay, and both teams battled a torrential downpour at times.
"He's a special, special player and I'm glad he's on our team, I'll tell you that much," USU head coach Gary Andersen said of Woodward, who scored his second career defensive touchdown as an Aggie. "That was a big-time play in a huge moment that flipped the game. If you're going to be a special team, be a good team, potentially be a great team you have to have a few of those plays out there, you have to have special players to make them."
Woodward's memorable play highlighted a strong performance by an Aggie defense that limited an explosive CSU offense to 296 yards of total offense — 256 below the Rams' season average. CSU (1-4, 0-1 MW) only gained 45 yards in the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance.
"I thought overall the defense, we got better as the game went on," said Woodward, who finished with a game-high 14 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles for the second time this season. "Obviously, in the first half we still made plays when we needed to when we had turnovers on offense or special teams, and we did a good job of limiting the points they got off turnovers, but I think as the game progressed we just got better as a defense."
The Aggies (3-1, 2-0), who extended their winning streak to three, needed to play well defensively because they were in a gift-giving mood at times against what appeared to be a motivated and hungry CSU defense. USU quarterback Jordan Love threw a pair of interceptions, plus the hosts fumbled twice and had a punt blocked. The Rams turned those four takeaways into 10 points, plus they scored another TD after blocking the punt.
"Well, that was a fight for sure," Andersen said. "The kids battled through a lot of things. They battled through a weather delay, they battled through five turnovers to zero at one point in the game. We came back and got a couple of huge turnovers for us, but (the kids) fought, they battled. It was not perfect by any means. There's a lot to work on. I thought the defense continually just got put in poor spots tonight and found a way to keep on fighting, keep on battling and score points themselves, so it was great to see just the resilience of the football team."
Indeed, USU's defense did come up with some crucial takeaways in the second half. In addition to Woodward's gigantic play, cornerback Cameron Haney and Woodward also stripped CSU players of the pigskin. Those fumbles were recovered by USU's Dalton Baker and Tipa Galeai, respectively.
The Aggies held the Rams to three points in the second half, a 45-yard field goal by Cayden Camper that pulled the visitors even at 24-24 with 13:43 remaining in the third quarter. That field goal was set up by CSU defensive back Keevan Bailey — the son of future NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey — who jumped an out route and picked off Love at the Aggie 28-yard line.
USU took the lead for good at 27-24 late in the third quarter when Dominik Eberle booted a clutch 48-yard FG in the driving rain. The reigning Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week was also successful on a 42-yard field goal in the opening half.
The Aggies didn't essentially slam the door until Woodward's game-defining play, but they remained in control because running back Gerold Bright was a workhorse in the second half. The senior racked up a career-high 179 rushing yards on a career-best 36 carries. No. 1 fought his way to 116 yards on 25 attempts in the second half for USU, which won the possession battle 31:01-28:59, including a 18:41-11:19 advantage after the half.
To his credit, Bright was able to bounce back big time after coughing the ball up early in the first quarter. The big performance by Bright was especially instrumental because teammate Jaylen Warren appeared to suffer a shoulder injury in the first half and only carried the ball five times.
"Well, I know my coaches have got confidence in me and they believe in me, just as much as I believe in them and their play calling and their schemes," Bright said. "So, as a player you've got to have a short-term memory and move onto the next play because that next play could be your best play."
The Aggies ended up rushing for 240 yards, while Love completed 17 of 33 passes for 204 yards, two TDs and the aforementioned two picks. USU's offensive line fared well despite losing starting right tackle Andy Koch last week to what appeared to be a serious leg injury. Kyler Hack started in his place.
"The O-line did well," Bright said. "It's always a next-man-up mentality. The guys who you don't see playing a lot because the starters are out there, we've got backup guys who can come out and play right away."
USU's rush defense was outstanding as a potent CSU attack was limited to 79 yards on 35 attempts. Kinsey Jr. only managed 70 yards on 22 carries after going off for 246 yards against Toledo last weekend. The Aggies were also stout against the run last Saturday against another good ground attack in San Diego State.
"As a defense, we pride ourselves on that every single week, trying to just limit (the opponent's rushing) yards and keep them to a lower average," Woodward. "And it's a big part of our D-line. We rotate through a lot of guys and so there's always fresh people out there who can make plays, and I think our D-line did a great job tonight."
It was a wild, entertaining first half, and the Aggies were somewhat fortunate to take a 24-21 lead into the locker room. The Rams entered the contest as one of the worst teams in the nation in turnover margin (minus-7), but had two takeaways in the opening half to USU's zero, and the visitors blocked a punt and converted it into seven points.
CSU got its first takeaway when Bright fumbled the ball less than three minutes into the game. The Rams took over at the Aggie 35-yard line, but Justus Te'i and Troy Lefeged Jr. each made huge tackles for loss, and the visitors turned the ball over on downs.
USU only picked up one first down on its first two possessions of the game, and CSU's Troy Golden blocked Pierce Callister's punt to end the second Aggie possession. The Rams took over at the Aggie 18 and fully capitalized six plays later when Jaylen Thomas took the pitch and scored from 2 yards out on third and goal.
CSU's momentum was short-lived, though, because USU All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver caught the ensuring kickoff at least seven yards deep in the end zone and brought in back to the house. USU's cornerback Jarrod Green flattened a CSU defender 75 yards down field to help Scarver match the program record with four career kickoff returns for TDs.
The Rams retook the lead at 14-7 early in the second quarter when Kinsey Jr. capped off an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge on third and goal. Kinsey Jr. was listed as "doubtful" for this game by CSU head coach Mike Bobo during his weekly press conference.
Once again, CSU's lead didn't last long as USU only needed 84 seconds of game time to pull even. Deven Thompkins used his blazing speed to burn the CSU secondary on a 37-yard scoring strike from Love.
The Aggies got the ball back a couple of minutes later, but Love's sideline pass all the way across the field was intercepted by Andre Neal, who sprinted 44 yards untouched for a pick-six. It was only the second pick-six Love has thrown as an Aggie.
To their credit, the Aggies quickly bounced back by scoring 10 points in the final 6:41 of the half. Dominik Eberle booted a 42-yard field goal to pare USU's deficit to 21-17, and Love tossed a 40-yard TD to Caleb Repp with 1:08 remaining in the second quarter — Repp's first TD as an Aggie.
Repp finished with three receptions, as did teammates Scarver and Thompkins.
In addition to Woodward, Lefeged Jr. came up huge for the Aggie defense. The junior flew around like a human missile and recorded 11 tackles, including three of the team's seven tackles for loss.
Haney also played well for the second straight game. The senior cornerback broke up three passes for the second time is as many weeks, and sacked CSU signal caller Patrick O'Brien on a corner blitz.
For the second week in a row, USU easily won the third down battle. The Aggies converted on 8 of 18 third downs and limited the Rams to a 4 of 16 clip.
• The Aggies won their ninth consecutive game on Merlin Olsen Field and started the season 3-1 for only the fourth time in the last 41 years.