Utah State defensive end Nick Heninger (42) holds up a championship belt after they won the LA Bowl NCAA college football game 24-13 over Oregon State in Inglewood, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Inglewood, Calif.—Utah State finished its turnaround season with an emphatic win on a national stage in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Saturday night, beating the Pac-12’s Oregon State 24-13 to secure one of the biggest wins in program history.
USU finished the season with an 11-3 overall record and a Mountain West Conference championship. Oregon State fell to 7-6 overall.
The win was USU’s first bowl game victory over a Power Five opponent and just the third time the Aggies have won 11 games in a season. It came after a tumultuous 2020 year where USU won just one game, had a coaching change and player protests that resulted in forfeiting the final game of the year.
Head coach Blake Anderson called Saturday “a special night.”
“This journey started over a year ago in less than ideal circumstances,” Anderson said. “We traveled into the season with most people in the football community across the country not really expecting much of us, but the group in the room held together.”
Sophomore quarterback Cooper Legas, who spent most the season on the sideline as a third-stringer, entered the game in the second quarter for injured starter Logan Bonner, who left the game with a knee injury. Legas hadn’t thrown a pass in a game since high school, but completed 11 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in Saturday night’s game.
“He exceeded every expectation I had of what he could do,” Anderson said. “He moved the chains with his feet and made some throws with poise.”
Defensive end Nick Heninger, who recorded three sacks against an Oregon State offensive line that had only allowed 10 all season, said Legas’ performance didn’t surprise him.
“I’ve seen the work he puts in on and off the field,” he said. “It brought me to tears that he was able to go in and play well.”
Aggie running back Calvin Tyler Jr., who transferred from Oregon State, carried the ball 26 times for 120 yards and a touchdown against his former teammates.
Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan was 21-30 passing for 263 yards and an interception. B.J. Baylor, who entered the game as an All-Pac-12 first-team running back, was held to just 78 yards on 18 carries.
Aggie wide receiver Deven Thompkins finished his record-breaking USU career with six receptions, 115 yards and a touchdown.
The game started in Oregon State’s favor. The Beavers found the endzone less than 60 seconds in, passing the ball once for 39 yards and twice for 32 total yards in the opening drive. The rest of the quarter was all defense as neither team was able to score, but that was also when Bonner went out with injury.
“I told all the wide receivers that we got to help Coop and help build Coop’s confidence and give him that confidence to be able to play good,” Thompkins said. “He didn’t even need it. He was ready to go.”
Legas wasted no time turning heads, connecting with Thompkins on a 62-yard touchdown bomb on the first pass attempt of his collegiate career. Anderson said that wasn’t the play that was drawn up, but that Legas didn’t like what he saw from the defense and changed it just before the snap.
“That is probably the first time he has ever checked, physically checked to that particular play,” Anderson said. “It came at the most critical time for us.”
The Beavers struck back on the following drive, chewing up more than six minutes of clock on a 13-play, 66-yard drive that led to a 37-yard field goal, but USU took its first lead less than two minutes later. It was Legas, again, orchestrating an 11-play, 85-yard drive that ended in a Tyler 15-yard touchdown run. The Aggies entered halftime with a 14-10 lead.
USU extended its lead on its first possession of the second half with a 64-yard drive and a 25-yard Connor Coles field goal. Then, after Oregon State missed a field goal attempt of its own, Legas came in for another touchdown drive. After picking up 34 yards as the receiver on a double-pass trick play, Legas found Brandon Bowling in the end zone shortly after. USU entered the fourth quarter leading 24-10.
Anderson said the double-pass play would have been called no matter what quarterback was on the field, but said he told Bonner after the game that it was probably a good thing it was Legas out there instead.
“He would have only gotten a first down,” Anderson joked. “Coops is a little faster than he is, so he actually turned it into an explosive play.”
Oregon State fired back in the fourth, first scoring on a 34-yard field goal to cut the Aggie lead to 11, then intercepted a Legas pass on the next Aggie drive. The Beaver offense was moving the ball and had just crossed into Aggie territory when Justin Rice forced a fumble that was recovered by USU.
The Aggie offense struggled more in the fourth quarter, but the defense did just enough. With less than seven minutes to go, Oregon State elected not to punt on fourth-and-12 near midfield, and came up inches short, turning the ball over on downs.
USU’s offense was inches from the goal line when OSU knocked the ball from Tyler’s hands and into the endzone. After the pile of football players was removed from the ball, the Beavers had possession with 2:31 left in the game. With one chance left for Oregon State, OSU launched the ball downfield, but it was Aggie safety Hunter Reynolds who came down with Nolan’s pass, sealing the Aggie win.
Thompkins was named offensive MVP of the bowl game while Heninger was named defensive MVP. Utah State, which has not been ranked yet this season, but most recently received the 26th most votes, could likely be ranked at the conclusion of the bowl games.