usu nmsu football

New Mexico State's Jared Wyatt gets tackled by Utah State cornerback Cam Lampkin (6) on Saturday in Las Cruces.

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There's really no way of sugarcoating what was a very poor first-half performance by a Utah State football program that was squaring off against a reeling opponent --- one that hasn't defeated a FBS team in nearly two calendar years.

Simply put, USU was very fortunate it only trailed New Mexico State by six points at halftime on a balmy Saturday afternoon in Las Cruces, New Mexico. To their credit, though, the Aggies completely turned things around after halftime --- a common occurence during the 2021 campaign.

USU scored touchdowns on its first four possessions of the second half, kept the NMSU Aggies off the scoreboard in the final two quarters and coasted to a 35-13 victory in front of an announced crowd of 7,802 at Aggie Memorial Stadium. In the process, the northern Aggies improved to 4-0 on the road for the first time in 48 years.

"I'm really proud of them, frustrated and proud at the same time," USU head coach Blake Anderson said of his team. "And sometimes you can have an ugly win. Sometimes you've got to find a way to win an ugly game, and that's what we did again today."

It was, quite frankly, a forgettable first half for USU, but the visitors flat-out got the job done after the halftime break. The northern Aggies (7-2) amassed 340 of their 457 yards of total offense in the second half, plus limited the southern Aggies (1-8) to just 110 yards during that timespan. In fact, 187 of NMSU's 347 total yards were gained in the first quarter.

What was Anderson's approach in regard to addressing his team at halftime?

"I went after them a little bit," he said. "Honestly, I wasn't so much about going after them, it was just being truthful with them. I've been honest with them all week about how tough this road trip is ... and that is was our responsibility to play at the level we're supposed to play at, not to play to the crowd, not to play to the environment, not to play to the opponent. And I told them at halftime that nothing had surprised me to this point, that we had done what a lot of teams do when they come here --- that they come out flat and had not played their best, not played inspired football. And we we were either going to make a decision to go out and play the second half like we're capable of, or we're going to go home and regret letting one get away. And (our guys) really responded."

USU needed less than one minute of actual game time to make a statement in the third quarter. The visitors received the opening kickoff and promptly marched 87 yards in four plays. Deven Thompkins got behind the NMSU secondary and hauled in a 54-yard scoring strike from Logan Bonner, giving USU a 14-13 lead it wouldn't relinquish.

It was another special day for Thompkins, who hauled in nine receptions for a career-high 215 yards and a pair of TDs. No. 13 now ranks first among all FBS players this season in receiving yards (1,314) and receiving yards per game (146.0). This is the first time Thompkins' has eclipsed the 200-yard barrier during his collegiate career.

"I'm at a loss for words," Thompkins said. "It's been something I've just been wanting and I've been getting close to every single weekend. And it's like, 100-yard games, 177-yard games, it's cool and all, but I've just been working for this 200-yard game. And honestly, in a way it's a relief, but it makes me even more hungry."

USU's defense also set the tone as NMSU went three and out on its first two possessions of the third quarter. USU relentlessly blitzed NMSU quarterback Jonah Johnson throughout the contest and, as a result, the Fresno City College transfer was sacked seven times. Seven different USU players were credited with at least half a sack, led by Patrick Joyner Jr.'s 1.5.

"Yeah, we had to have it," Anderson said. "They have a really good wide receiver corps and a quarterback that if you give him time, he can connect the dots, and we saw him do that when he did have time. I thought early they did a really good job of protecting him, and that's how they moved the ball. But again, we dialed up the intensity and little by little we started to fatigue them and played much, much better down the stretch. We had a number of guys get (to the QB) and land, and get him off schedule and force them to punt the ball, which we needed."

Utah State's second series of the second half culminated with a 4-yard pass to paydirt from Bonner to Derek Wright. Bonner shook off a poor first half --- he only threw for 73 yards and was intercepted on a pass into triple coverage --- completed 15 of 19 passes after halftime and accumulated 359 yards through the air. The Arkansas State transfer, who completed multiple passes to six different targets, also matched his career high of four TD tosses for the second straight week.

The northern Aggies extended their advantage to 28-13 with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter on a 4-yard run by Elelyon Noa. Back-to-back catches of 18 yards by Thompkins and 25 yards by Brandon Bowling set the stage for Noa, who led the visitors with 57 yards on 16 carries.

USU's lead ballooned to 35-13 at the 8:43 mark of the fourth quarter courtesy of a 1-yard reception by Justin McGriff, which capped off a dagger of a nine-play, 93-yard march to paydirt. Thompkins elevated over a NMSU defender to haul in a 51-yard reception on the first play of that possession. The 5-foot-8 senior took flight and impressively high-pointed a catch over a pair of NMSU players in the opening half.

"A lot of guys don't have the ability to elevate for the ball like he does," Anderson said. "It doesn't really matter how big you are, he just plays big and (he made) huge catches when we had to have them. And he just kind of wills this team to the end zone and loves to play, and that's what you love about the guy."

Just prior to Thompkins' aforementioned 51-yard catch, USU cornerback Zahodri Jackson deftly broke up a fourth-and-goal pass in the end zone. Jackson missed the first half of Saturday's game because he was whistled for targeting during the second half of last Saturday's 51-31 triumph over Hawaii at Maverik Stadium.

Those were the kind of defensive plays USU was lacking in the first quarter. NMSU, which fell to 0-7 against teams from the Mountain West this season, completely dominated the opening quarter and raced out to a 10-0 lead. USU's deficit would have been even more pronounced had star linebacker Justin Rice not blocked a chip shot field goal on the hosts' opening possession.

Anderson aptly described his team's first-quarter performance as "a little bit lifeless." Game time temperatures in the high-70s might have contributed to USU's slow start.

"We haven't had that kind of heat in a long, long time," Anderson said. "We've been practicing in 45 degree weather. I thought it took it's toll (with) too many guys cramping today."

USU only managed to run 24 plays during the first half, compared to NMSU's 49. As a result, the southern Aggies were able to own a huge 21:13 to 8:47 edge in time of possession in the opening half.

Nevertheless, USU was able to take advantage of a short field and pare its deficit to 10-7 on a 22-yard reception by Thompkins in the back of the end zone five minutes into the second quarter. USU forced NMSU to punt from its end zone and only needed to advance the pigskin 28 yards on that scoring drive.

NMSU responded with a lengthy 14-play march and resulted in a 35-yard field goal by Ethan Albertson late in the second quarter, giving the hosts a 13-7 advantage at the half. Albertson booted a season-high 45-yard FG in the first quarter.

Unfortunately for NMSU, it was all USU in the second half. It's the fifth time this season the northern Aggies have managed to prevail despite facing a double-digit deficit.

"It's definitely taken some years off all of our lifespans, but we just don't feel pressure, we don't feel nerves when we get down," USU safety Hunter Reynolds said. "We know that we're such a good second-half team because of all the work we put into the offseason. ... And a lot of times we're down because of self-inflicted mistakes, so we know that once we clean things up, then that's when we kind of show our true selves."

Reynolds finished with eight tackles, which was one fewer than teammate Shaq Bond, who put together a strong performance. The super senior also contributed with a sack and broke up two passes.

In addition to establishing a new season-high tally in sacks, USU accumulated a season-best 14 tackles for loss, and by 11 different players, to boot. Defensive tackle Marcus Moore led the way with 3.0 TFLs.

Defensive end Nick Heninger chipped in with five tackles, including 2.0 for a loss, 1.0 sacks and a forced fumble for USU, which also got a forced fumble from defensive tackle Poukesi Vakauta.

NMSU recovered both fumbles. In fact, Bonner's second-quarter INT was the only turnover of the game.

USU limited NMSU tailback Juwaun Price to 36 yards on nine carries. Price went off for 157 yards in his team's previous contest, a 48-34 loss to Hawaii two weeks ago in Honolulu.

The southern Aggies finished with a paltry 49 yards on 35 rushing attempts, thanks in large part to the 59 yards lost by Johnson on either sacks or TFLs. USU's rush defense was also very stout a week ago as Hawaii managed a measly 12 yards on 22 attempts.

USU NOTES

* Captaining the northern Aggies for Saturday's game were Heninger, offensive lineman Chandler Dolphin, safety Jarrod Green, Wright and kicker Elliott Nimrod.

* USU welcomed back starting running back Calvin Tyler Jr., who missed the previous two games with an injury. The Oregon State transfer finished with 39 yards on eight carries --- he had back-to-back rushes of 20 and 11 yards in the third quarter --- but exited a little bit later with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.

* USU now leads the all-time series with NMSU, 32-8.

* This is the 26th time in program history USU has won seven or more games in a season.

* Rice's blocked field goal was the first blocked kick of any kind for USU in '21.

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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