With the game on the line and, perhaps, even their season, the Aggies turned to the leading scorer in program history, and he delivered.
Dominik Eberle booted a 30-yard field goal as time expired as Utah State earned a wild 37-35 victory over Fresno State in a pivotal Mountain West football game Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 32,037 at Bulldog Stadium. It was USU’s first game-winning field goal in 21 years, and it moved the Aggies within one victory of bowl eligibility and kept them in a hotly contested race for the Mountain Division title.
“I’m feeling great,” Eberle said in a radio interview with 1280 The Zone. “No better feeling than that.”
The Aggies moved the ball effectively all game long as they racked up 525 yards of total offense and scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. USU stumbled in the red zone in the second half, but Eberle was successful on all three of his field goal attempts to keep the visitors within striking distance.
It was the first time the senior had attempted a field goal in three games. Eberle is now 14 of 16 on the season and 57 of 72 during his decorated Aggie career.
“As long as the team scores touchdowns, I’d rather kick PATs anyways,” Eberle said. “But as long as the team wins, that’s all I care about.”
It was an extremely important win for an Aggie team in danger of suffering its first three-game losing streak since the end of the 2016 campaign. Instead, the Aggies (5-4, 4-1 MW) showed some resiliency and beat the Bulldogs (4-5, 2-3) for a third straight time.
“I’m just going to say this, talk about a resilient, tough-minded group of kids that just became one fist and fought their tails off,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “All three phases found a way to contribute. We’ve got a lot to work on, but you know what, I’m just proud of this team’s resolve and their toughness. What they’ve gone through the last couple of weeks and to come out here and just fight together like that, it’s so rewarding to see them have success. I love them and, gosh, it’s fun to see them play like that and get a big win.”
Things looked pretty bleak for the Aggies when their 28-14 third-quarter lead quickly evaporated and they fell behind 35-31. FSU carved up USU’s much-maligned and injury-plagued defense on touchdown drives of 83, 75 and 43 yards during its first three possessions of the second half. The Aggies have already lost All-American linebacker David Woodward and all-conference defensive tackle Fua Leilua to season-ending injuries, and all-Mountain West performer Tipa Galeai did not play Saturday.
Instead of fold, USU’s defense bowed up and displayed some tenacity. The Aggies stopped the Bulldogs on a pair of third-and-one runs in the fourth quarter and forced back-to-back three and outs — this against a vaunted FSU rushing attack that had averaged 246.0 yards during its previous three games, plus 7.0 yards per carry. Shaq Bond, Jacoby Wildman and Troy Lefeged Jr. made crucial defensive plays for the Aggies in crunch time.
“The defense just kept battling and they fought ... and they did what they had to do at the end of the day to make the play a half a yard short to give us a chance,” Andersen said. “And in games like these, (that’s huge). And they kept fighting. When they’re playing that way on defense, sometimes it’s not that easy to get out there and keep fighting, but they sure did.”
It was a huge night for Aggie quarterback Jordan Love, who completed 30 of 39 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns. The junior’s decision making was also superb as he didn’t throw an interception after tossing three against BYU last week. Love was only sacked once as USU’s offensive line put together arguably its best performance of the season.
“He was fantastic,” Andersen said of Love. “... If a quarterback has a chance to be fantastic, it starts with the guys in front of him, and they did a tremendous job of protecting him.”
Love’s top target was dynamic wide receiver Siaosi Mariner, who hauled in a career-high 11 catches for 103 yards and two TDs. Tight end Caleb Repp and wideouts Deven Thompkins and Jordan Nathan combined for 222 massive yards on 13 receptions.
“We were just executing,” Love said. “... I mean, there were a couple of plays here and there (we didn’t execute), but for the most part the offense was just executing.”
Additionally, USU kept FSU’s defense honest by rushing for 137 yards on 34 attempts. Senior tailback Gerold Bright led the way with 79 yards on 14 carries, while Jaylen Warren and Love also made some timely plays with their feet.
The Aggies easily scored more points Saturday than they did in their previous two games (21) combined.
It was a much-needed performance for the Aggies offense, especially since it was another shaky start for the Aggie defense, which allowed the Bulldogs to convert on a trio of third downs on the opening possession of the game. On the first third down, a pair of Aggies had a chance to sack elusive Bulldog quarterback Jorge Reyna.
Fresno State capped off its 12-play, 82-yard march with a 10-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Rivers at the 8:23 mark of the first quarter.
To their credit, the Aggies immediately bounced back by advancing the pigskin 71 yards on seven plays on their first possession of the contest. The drive culminated with an impressive 21-yard scoring run by Bright, who dragged a defender at least seven yards into the end zone.
It was the first time USU found paydirt on its opening possession since its season opener against Wake Forest.
Both teams went three and out the second time they got the ball, but the Aggies capitalized on their other two possessions of the opening half with touchdowns. Love was on fire in the first half as he completed 15 of 19 passes for 188 yards and a pair of TDs to Mariner — both on third and goal. Mariner and Repp hauled in 10 of those opening-half receptions.
USU ended the half on a 14-0 run after Rivers gave FSU a 14-7 advantage with a 2-yard scoring scamper early in the second quarter. The Bulldogs converted on a pair of third-and-long plays on that drive.
The Aggies pulled even at 14-14 when Love fired a dart in the middle of the end zone to Mariner from 15 yards out to cap off an eight-play, 76-yard march. It was Mariner’s third reception of that Aggie possession, which was aided by back-to-back catches of 28 and 19 yards by Repp.
Back-to-back-to-back penalties by the Bulldogs foiled their final possession of the half. The Aggies then proceeded to piece together a nine-play, 86-yard scoring drive as they executed the two-minute drill to perfection.
A 17-yard scramble by Love and a spectacular 36-yard reception by Nathan — who was blanketed by two FSU defenders — set the stage for Mariner, who snared a 8-yard TD catch on a nice back-shoulder fade by Love. Mariner’s sixth touchdown of the season gave the visitors a 21-14 halftime advantage.
“Yeah, that was a big time by J-Nathan right there,” Love said of Nathan’s aforementioned catch.
USU’s lead ballooned to 28-14 early in the third quarter when Warren bowled over a FSU defender and found the end zone from 6 yards out. The junior college transfer racked up 47 total yards during that possession.
Fresno State was undaunted, though, as it went on a 21-3 run to seize a 35-31 lead. Josh Hokit, Rivers and Jalen Cropper all recorded scoring runs for the Bulldogs during that stretch. Rivers has nine rushing touchdowns in FSU’s last four games.
Eberle connected on field goals of 25 and 39 yards to somewhat quell FSU’s momentum, but the Aggies were ultimately unable to fully capitalize in the red zone, while the Bulldogs found paydirt on all five of their trips inside the red zone.
USU was in golden shape to retake the lead with less than six minutes remaining in the contest, but failed to gain two yards on four plays. Warren was stuffed for a 4-yard loss on a fourth-and-goal run from inside the FSU 1-yard line.
Fortunately for the Aggies, their defense got the ball immediately back, setting the stage for their All-American kicker.
“It’s a big-win time and it just feels amazing,” Love said. “I mean, we just knew we had to come in here and get this win, and to end it on that note, it’s just big time.”
The Bulldogs finished with 419 total yards, including 156 yards rushing on 36 attempts. However, one of those carries went for 40 yards, meaning USU limited FSU to 3.3 yards per carry otherwise.
Lefeged Jr. led the Aggies with seven tackles, while Bond chipped in with six. DJ Willliams had two of USU’s five tackles for loss — all of which took place in the first half. Justus Te’i and Caden Andersen were credited with a half a sack each.
• The Aggies improved to 18-4 against opponents from the West Division since joining the Mountain West.
• Junior defensive end Jaylin Bannerman and true freshman linebacker AJ Vongphachanh made their first starts.
• Love passed Chuckie Keeton for second place in program history for career passing yards. The junior now has 7,600.