LOGAN — For the 10th time in the last 12 years, Utah State is bowl eligible. The Aggies earned their sixth win of the season by defeating San Jose State on senior night 35-31 on Merlin Olsen Field.
“Super proud,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. “Excited to be bowl eligible. I know we talked about that a lot over the last few weeks and just how much that means to this group. Just how hard that is to go from 1-4 to 6-5 with the opportunity to be 7-5 maybe next week.”
Fitting for senior night, the Aggies were led on offense by senior running back Calvin Tyler Jr., who ran for 126 yards on 30 attempts and recorded a career-best three rushing touchdowns, and senior wide receiver Brian Cobbs and his 10 catches for 122 yards. On defense senior (although still eligible to play next year) defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka recorded 2.0 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Utah State blew a 21-6 lead built in the first half, allowing San Jose State to take a 31-28 lead with 6:42 to play in the fourth quarter. Three times in the second half the Aggies had offensive drives cut short by turnovers of one form or another.
On the first drive of the third quarter Tyler fumbled a ball which the Spartans recovered. Two possessions later Cooper Legas threw his second interception of the day. And finally the Aggies failed to convert a fourth-down attempt with Legas being sacked on the down.
San Jose State meanwhile scored points on four out of five drives spanning the end of the second quarter to mid-way through the fourth. And so, down for the first time in 39:17 of game-time, Utah State needed to recover its offensive mojo in the worst way. The Aggies had time and the clock (and time outs even if they hadn’t) but Anderson knew this drive was the only thing separating the team from desperation mode.
“I told Coach Tuck, ‘fourth and two or less we’re going, anything else we’ll punt and play defense. Don’t make me put the punt team out there,’” Anderson said.
After gaining one first down and driving the ball to their own 47 the Aggies faced 3rd and 4. Failure to convert might end the game if San Jose State did anything with the ball should it gain possession. After evading pressure on his drop back, Legas threw a jump ball down the field for Cobbs who came down with it to secure 31 yards on the play.
“I think that was the spark because from there on I think we broke their will a little bit,” Anderson said of that play. “You could see us starting to take over.”
Five plays later Tyler ran it from three yards out for his third score of the day and a 35-31 Aggie lead. That TD came with 2:49 still on the clock, though, leaving plenty of time for San Jose State to manufacture a drive. And the Spartans had been very successful with the aforementioned four scoring drives in their last five possessions. The Aggie defense though, ramped up their play (not for the first time that night) and shut down the SJSU offense, forcing a turnover on downs in just four plays.
Motu’apuaka said that final drive for the defense against the Spartans’ offense came down to “how bad did you want it.”
“We knew how bad we wanted it and we knew how important that drive was,” he said. “We have a lot of great players on our defense so I’m happy that a lot of them got to make plays and help us win this game.”
After the turnover on downs, Utah State was able to run out the clock with some help from the Spartans on a penalty. The Aggies were stopped on the SJSU 20 and opted to kick a field goal to go up seven with less than 40 seconds left (and no timeouts left for SJSU). But the Spartans were called for roughing the kicker so even though Connor Coles nailed the 37-yarder, the Aggies gladly took the points off the board and took a knee to run off the remaining 35 seconds.
Utah State certainly didn’t play perfect, but made numerous big plays – particularly on defense – in the game to overcome some of its own attempts to shoot itself in the foot. Anderson noted what probably should have happened in a game where Utah State lost the turnover battle big-time.
“(We) turned the ball over way too much. Should not have won the game,” Anderson said. “Clearly we did a couple big things but their ability to go out and rally in those situations and either force them to punt or force them to kick field goals was huge.”
Not the least of the key makeup plays was a punt block/punt return touchdown in the second quarter. Ike Larsen tipped an Alex Weir punt – Larsen’s third blocked punt of the year – though the ball did make it past the line of scrimmage. There to greet the ball was junior cornerback Jaden Smith who caught the ball out of the air and ran it back 56 yards for a touchdown.
“We felt like we had a legitimate chance there. On film they had lived very dangerously in the last few weeks. San Diego State was really close, Fresno (State) was really close. Kind of hoping on the cold weather of slowing them down just a hair. We went after several and when we needed it most we got it.”
As Anderson noted, the defense held its ground numerous times despite less-than-ideal circumstances. The Spartans benefitted from three USU turnovers but scored just three points on the ensuing drives off those takeaways. Further still, after allowing a quick five-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to start the games, USU’s defense bowed up and forced five straight SJSU punts. And it was during that stretch of heavy SJSU punting that the Aggies built its 21-6 lead with two long touchdown drives (15 plays, 96 yards and 12 plays, 61 yards) and the punt block/return touchdown.
A huge part of the success Utah State had on defense was its ability to take down Spartans quarterback Chavan Cordeiro. The Aggies brought down Cordeiro five times in the game and limited his ability to escape the pocket and make plays with his arm or feet.
“It was very important for us to get after him,” Motu’apuaka said. “We knew watching film and just following San Jose (State) throughout the season that this guy is the real deal and in order for us to win we really need to stop him and slow him down. I think that our defense did a pretty good job of that this night.”
Being able to send out the seniors with a final home win is something the Aggies are proud to be able to do. Earning a bowl game at the same time only made it better for them.
“It means everything. Our seniors on our team this year are great leaders for us. They’re game-changers,” Motu’apuaka said. “To be able to send them off like this and get another game to play with these guys, it’s an amazing feeling.”
“Being able to go bowling with these guys, some of these seniors experiencing that once again. Man, it feels great,” Tyler said.
Though the Aggies earned an extra game, they still have one more regular season contest on the docket. Utah State will travel to Boise State over Thanksgiving weekend to take on the Broncos who clinched the Mountain Division crown with a win over Wyoming on Saturday. That game will kickoff in Boise on Friday Nov. 25 at 10 a.m.