LOGAN – Utah State’s offense last year was a factory of explosive plays which not only generated crucial yards and touchdowns that led to wins, but were simply entertaining. Just for fun, let’s watch one of those plays.
A simply stunning display of speed and the ability to take a small play and make a huge impact. In all, a 75-yard play, one of two 70-yard plays from Deven Thompkins in 2021 (and second-longest play of the Aggie season behind Derek Wright’s 76-yard TD catch against New Mexico).
Just for kicks, let’s see USU’s longest offensive play of this year.
Well, it’s solid. Nothing wrong with the play. A good 31-yard pickup by Kyle Van Leeuwen. It’s just that that is the single longest play of USU’s three-game old season. Utah State had 43 plays of at least 30 or more yards last year, tied for most in FBS and an average of three per game. This year’s Aggies have two plays of 30-plus yards. Total. One year after averaging three per game.
Explosive plays lead to explosive offense. Case in point, take the top ten offenses of 2021 and you’ll find all of them inside the top 21 teams in number of plays with 10-plus yards gained. Five teams overlap as top ten in both total offense and plays of 10-plus yards including Alabama, Western Kentucky and Ohio State, which are top four on both lists.
Utah State came in at ninth on the 2021 list for plays of 10-plus yards. And it explains a lot as to how the team shattered its program’s passing record book and became the second-best offense in school history. Conversely, the lack of explosive plays by this year’s team goes a long way in explaining how it got shut out on offense two straight weeks, with one of the Aggies’ opponents being an FCS team.
One of the biggest reasons for Utah State’s lack of big plays comes from a simple lack of aggression, namely in the passing game. By nature, most big plays come from the passing game and, sure enough, USU followed this unwritten law last year with nearly 70 percent of its 10-plus yard plays being passes (and nearly 80 percent of 20-plus plays came via the pass).
The 2021 Aggies got all of those big plays by being arguably the most aggressive passing team in the country. Bonner led all FBS quarterbacks in deep pass attempts (throws that travelled 20 or more yards in the air down the field). Nearly a quarter of all Bonner’s attempts were deep passes. So far this year, Bonner is T-69th in that category.
In an interview with the Full Court Press on 106.9 The FAN, head coach Blake Anderson explained why the offense went conservative in the opening two games. He said against UConn it was a factor of both wanting to run the ball and that the Huskies dropped a lot of players into coverage on a consistent basis. At Alabama the coaching staff wasn’t keen on being aggressive since they feared being torn apart by a talented Crimson Tide defense if Bonner held the ball too long.
You can agree with that reasoning or not, but when both of those games were in the rearview mirror, the Aggies did become more aggressive. Bonner threw 17 passes that travelled at least 10 yards down the field (he had only thrown 16 such passes in the first two games combined), but execution simply wasn’t there. Bonner was 3-for-17 on those throws for just 50 yards. Some of that is certainly on Bonner, but plenty of that is also on the targets he’s throwing to. Let’s look at both factors.
There’s no question that Bonner can throw down the field. After all, he did it a ton last season, averaging a stellar 11.4 yards per attempt on throws that travelled 10-plus yards. But this year he hasn’t done so nearly as much, and hasn’t done well when he has. Some of his lack of attempts comes from conservative play-calling, as we’ve seen, but there’s also a big possibility that he’s been less willing to hold onto the ball and thrown short much more often. After all, Bonner is still dealing with the effects of injuring his knee last year. The knee itself has been medically cleared, Bonner just simply doesn’t trust it right now and it’s impacting his ability to truly run this offense.
While Bonner’s knee could be a factor, one thing that’s definitely a factor in USU’s lack of explosiveness is its less-capable personnel. During the bye week, Anderson repeatedly talked about the losses his team took in the offseason. And among all of those, the loss of Thompkins is perhaps the most devastating of all.
By this point in the season, it’s becoming more and more clear that losing Thompkins meant far more than merely the loss of 1,700 yards of production. Thompkins changed the Aggies’ offense, opened it up and raised its ceiling.
Thompkins himself accounts for just over a quarter of USU’s 10-plus yard plays last year. His 61 such plays ranked third in FBS last year. Of course, the Aggies also boasted Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright, who both ranked fairly high on the list of big-play receivers. Bowling was T-53rd and Wright was T-57th. In fact, the only other team with three receivers in the top 60 of this list was Ohio State.
Utah State not only lost an all-time receiver, it also lost two other players who on a weekly basis provided big-play potential. And the Aggies haven’t yet shown they can replicate even a fraction of the lost firepower.
“This group has to find itself. Where can the big plays come from? How can we schematically create opportunities?” Anderson asked. “The answers a year ago may not be the same answers this year. And that’s part of being a great coach. It’s figuring out the personnel you have, where you’re inexperienced, where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are at, and figuring out a way to still move the ball.”
One thing Anderson suggested to maximize this group was to do more “outside the box offensively.” What this will mean we can only guess at this point. The team will certainly have the chance to make some big shake-ups in the passing attack with Van Leeuwen out for the year. Terrell Vaughn and NyNy Davis will have to pick up the slack. Could they be used to stretch the field the way Thompkins did? Broc Lane will also play a bigger role as he gets healthier. Will he and the other tight ends be more than glorified fullbacks? Can Bonner find his courage and begin taking over the middle of the field again and also start slinging the ball? These guys have talked the talk about improving, but these changes have to actually happen sometime.
Key stats for this article came from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and cfbstats. Numbers on the depth of pass attempts come from PFF while long play data comes from cfbstats. All other stats and play-by-play data comes from College Football Reference, Utah State game book archives, or the author’s own charting.