Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner (1) drops back to pass as Utah State linebacker Tyson Chisholm (43) rushes in the first half during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
CARSON, Calif.—Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner held the Mountain West championship trophy amidst falling confetti as his head coach took the microphone.
Among other things, Blake Anderson spoke about his team’s resilience in the midst of adversity.
“This group believed it could be done,” he told the crowd.
His players believed, but few others did. By beating the 11-1, No. 19 ranked San Diego State Aztecs, Utah State overcame heavy odds. Before the season started, ESPN’s Football Power Index only gave the Aggies a 1.1 percent chance at winning the title. USU was picked to finish near the bottom of the conference in the preseason polls.
“We felt disrespected this whole year,” Bonner said. “And we definitely felt disrespected coming into this week. We played with a chip on our shoulder and got it done.”
Even when USU got into the championship game, the title was considered by many to be a longshot. The Aztecs were considered the heavy favorites all week, but USU never looked the part of the underdog during the game. Utah State scored first, and never trailed.
“I’m just beyond proud of these guys,” Anderson said. “I felt all week that the only people who truly believed we could do this were the guys in the room. Across the country, all the conversation and all the chatter was really about San Diego State.”
Bonner, who threw for 318 yards, was the first quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in a Mountain West championship game
“We needed him to play great today,” Anderson said. “He has, I think, gotten better and better as the season has progressed.”
Utah State put up 383 yards of total offense to SDSU’s 315. With 41 yards, Calvin Tyler Jr. was the Aggies’ leading rusher against the second-best rush defense in the country. Wide receiver Brandon Bowling had eight receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Anderson said his team peaked at the right time.
“I felt very confident that they’d come in and play their best ball,” Anderson said of his players. “We played our best ball and we had to have it.”
USU’s defense held strong when needed, and was able to limit SDSU to a pair of field goals through the first three-and-a-half quarters.
“We knew coming in that this team loved to run the ball,” defensive end Byron Vaughns said. “So this week we emphasized stopping the run in practice, stopping the stretch, stopping the dive and stopping the quarterback from running, because a dual-threat quarterback is one of the most dangerous things in college football.”
SDSU quarterback Jordon Brookshire completed 11 of his 23 pass attempts for 117 yards, but was held to five yards on the ground.
It was a scoreless first quarter for both teams. After the offenses combined for four-straight three-and-outs to start the game, the Aztecs started moving the ball. SDSU moved inside the Aggie red zone, but came up short on fourth-and-one. USU had one drive in the opening quarter that moved the chains, but it didn’t result in points. The eight-play, 51-yard drive ended in a 46-yard missed field goal.
Utah State’s Reece Jarvis blocked Araiza’s punt early in the second quarter, giving USU the ball near midfield. When a fourth-down conversion, late-hit penalty and third-and-long Bonner scramble put the Aggies within striking distance, Bonner connected with Derek Wright for a five-yard touchdown catch.
San Diego State attempted a field goal on the following drive, but the 54-yarder missed wide right. USU responded with a six-play, 63-yard scoring drive capped with back-to-back Tyler rushes of 17 yards and a one-yard score.
San Diego State scored its first points on its last possession before the half, hitting a 23-yard field goal after a 10 play, 77 yard drive, cutting the Aggie lead to 14-3 at halftime.
Halftime had barely ended when Bonner went deep to a wide-open Bowling for a 58-yard touchdown catch. Then, after the Aggie D forced a punt, SDSU punter Matt Araiza kicked the ball into his teammate’s back. It bounced backward into the endzone, was nearly recovered by USU, but went out of bounds for a safety.
San Diego State struck back on USU’s next drive, intercepting Bonner’s pass on second and long. The Aztecs started in Aggie territory, got to USU’s 3-yard line, but an offensive pass interference call moved Brady Hoke’s team back. SDSU settled for a 36-yard field goal to make the score 23-6.
The Aztec score was just a small step back for Utah State. The Aggies scored points on the next three drives, while holding the Aztecs scoreless during the stretch.
First it was a six-play, 35-yard drive and another Bowling touchdown catch to take a 29-6 lead. Then, when SDSU’s Greg Bell fumbled the ball on the next drive’s first play, USU added three more points on a Coles 20-yard field goal. Trailing by 26 with limited time left in the game, San Diego State went for it on fourth down and didn’t convert. USU capitalized with a Justin McGriff nine-yard touchdown to take a 39-6 lead.
SDSU scored its first touchdown with 6:22 left in the game. The Aztec offense moved the ball 75 yards in just seven plays to cut the deficit to 39-13, but the ball continued to bounce Utah State’s way. On its very next drive, Tyler ran the ball 26 yards and fumbled the ball into the endzone. Luckily for USU, it was picked up by USU’s Jordan Nathan for the score.
Utah State improved to 10-3 overall and 602 in conference. As conference champions, the Aggies will likely play a Pac-12 opponent in the inaugural LA Bowl on Dec. 18.