Utah State head coach Blake Anderson, left, tabs quarterback Logan Bonner (1) on the head after he threw a touchdown pass against San Jose State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, San Jose, Calif. Utah State won 48-17. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
LOGAN—By winning the Mountain West Conference championship, the Utah State football team did what it set out to do. Now, after shocking the college football world by turning its one-win 2020 season into a 10-3 overall record and winning the conference title, Blake Anderson is looking to end his first year as head coach the same way he started it—with an upset win over a Pac-12 opponent. This time, the stage is a bit bigger.
The Aggies will go up against the Pac-12’s Oregon State Beavers in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl in the Los Angeles Chargers’ brand new 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The bowl game, which has already received plenty of attention from Kimmel on his late-night TV show, will be seen nationally on ABC. The Beavers finished the regular season 5-4 in Pac-12 play, and 7-5 overall.
After last year’s one-win disaster of a season, what USU has already achieved would have seemed nearly impossible for most anyone who follows college football. In his press conference earlier this week, Anderson noted the situation his players were in at the beginning of the season. He made it clear that win or lose this bowl game, the players on this team have set the program on a great path.
“Nothing is going to tarnish the legacy they have left,” he said. “I want it for them, and I can feel the energy in the building that they want it as well. We’re going to play our best ball on Saturday.”
Power Five wins over conference teams don’t come often or easy for USU. The season-opening win over Washington State was the first win over a Power Five school since the Aggies beat Wake Forest in 2014, and the first on the road since 1971. Utah State has never beat a current Power Five conference member in a bowl game. In fact, the Aggies have had just one chance, against Baylor, in the 1961 Gotham City Bowl.
Utah State last played in a bowl game in 2019, when the team lost to Kent State under former coach Gary Andersen. The program’s last bowl win was in 2018, when interim coach Frank Maile led the Aggies to a 52-13 rout of North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl.
If Utah State is to win this game, it will come against a team Anderson described as being “built well.” He said Oregon State is as good as any team USU has played all year, comparing the Beavers to previous opponents Washington State, BYU, Boise State and San Diego State.
“We’ve won some of those, we’ve lost some of those,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to play our best.”
What those opponents have had in common with Oregon State is what has given USU problems this year: size and length.
“The size matchups will be things that we are going to have to use speed and quickness to overcome,” Anderson said.
Perhaps the biggest threat to USU’s defense will be All-Pac-12 First Team running back B.J. Baylor, who has 1,259 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Anderson called Baylor “one of the best backs in the country.”
Baylor is just one piece of Oregon State’s rushing attack, which is just half of what Anderson said is a very balanced offensive attack. Quarterback Chance Nolan has thrown for 2,414 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, and he has a full set of capable wide receivers to get the ball to.
“It presents some challenges to our defense a little differently than what they’ve seen,” Anderson said. “These guys are really, really good at spreading the ball out and throwing it.”
Oregon State’s defense may be where the Aggies can gain an advantage. Overall, the 387.8 yards per game it allows ranks 76 out of 130 nationally, and the third down conversion is even worse at 127th. Anderson acknowledged that Oregon State has had its share of troubles on that side of the ball, but said the defense has improved in the last few weeks. He described the Beaver defense as high intensity, and said the Aggie offense will need to match it.
“The thing that stands out to me is length, and they play hair-on-fire,” Anderson said. “Really, they are flying to the ball.”
Aggie quarterback Logan Bonner has watched plenty of film on Oregon State. His assessment of the opponent’s defense lines up closely with what Anderson said.
“They’re always in your face,” Bonner said. “They play really good defense in all phases. They’re technically sound. They’re really athletic. They’re fast.”
That defense is led by another all-conference player, linebacker Avery Roberts, who has recorded 123 total tackles this season. Anderson believes the game will come down to the performances on the lines.
“Our offensive and defensive lines are going to have to play great if we are going to be in this game,” he said.
Despite double digit wins, an All-American in wide receiver Deven Thompkins and a conference championship, Oregon State is favored in this game. Aggie linebacker Justin Rice said that is the way he and his teammates like it.
“No one still respects us,” he said. “We’re still an underdog coming into this game, even coming off a championship. We love the fact that nobody respects us. Nobody respected us at the beginning of the year. We’ve just been leaning on ourselves knowing that we can really play with people, and they’re just going to have to come out and play the game and find out for themselves.”
Bowl games start Friday. Utah State and Oregon State will kickoff Saturday at 5:30 p.m. MT on ABC and will be a part of the second day of bowl games.