Utah State head coach Blake Anderson watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
EAST HARTFORD, CT — From a 17-point rally to a change at quarterback, multiple long touchdown plays, back-and-forth scoring in the second half and a last-second blocked kick to seal the victory, Utah State’s 34-33 win over UConn seemed to have everything a football fan might crave in an exciting matchup. But for the Aggies, taking home their first win over an FBS team will be the best part of the day from their point of view.
The Game Flow
Slow starts have plagued the Aggies all season, but the defense showed a flash of improvement in terms of first-quarter play. The Aggies forced an interception on UConn’s first drive, and even though the offense went three-and-out, the Aggies pinned the Huskies on the one-yard line. After another defensive stop and a 21-yard punt return, USU had the ball on UConn’s 34-yard line with a chance to take their first first-quarter lead against an FBS team this season.
And that’s when everything started to go wrong for the Aggies.
McCae Hillstead’s first pass of a drive starting inside the 35-yard line was an interception, thrown behind his receiver and into the hands of UConn’s star linebacker, Jackson Mitchell. UConn then drove the ball 80 yards the other way to go up 7-0. It was just the second touchdown UConn has scored in the first quarter all season.
Utah State’s response to throwing an interception and giving up a TD drive afterward was to…do essentially the exact same thing. Hillstead had another pass picked off, this one going off the hands of his receiver and into the hands of a UConn defender. This time the Huskies only had 27 yards to go and easily went the full distance to go up 14-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter.
Scoring slowed down in the second quarter, with UConn eating up time on an eight-minute drive that ended with a turnover on downs. The Huskies would eventually build up a 17-0 lead with 37 seconds left before the halftime break, but while Utah State had once again spotted a team a three-score lead, it rejected the notion of going into halftime that way. McCae Hillstead uncorked a deep ball to Colby Bowman that ended up going 63 yards for a touchdown.
To that point in the game, USU had 34 yards of total offense and essentially tripled that total in one play. And, fun fact, it’s the second 60-plus yard TD for Bowman in as many weeks and it gave the Aggies a considerable boost heading into the locker room.
The Aggies got the ball to start the second half and took full advantage of the momentum Bowman’s TD brought. USU drove 88 yards for a touchdown, but it didn’t come without a price. On a 31-yard completion to Jalen Royals, Hillstead took a massive hit which included helmet-to-helmet contact (a roughing the passer penalty was called, though not targeting). It took the freshman out of the game and sent Cooper Legas, the Week 1 starter who lost his job to Hillstead, back into the fray. Legas took little time to get acclimated, throwing a pass that drew a pass interference which then set up a 15-yard TD pass to Royals.
These two touchdowns at the end of the second quarter and start of the third, marked the beginning of six straight scoring drives by the Aggies and also part of what became 24 unanswered points by Utah State.
The “unanswered” part of that equation came about in part due to the defense joining the offense in the second-half improvement in play. USU’s defense yielded 253 yards in the first half to a team averaging only 286 per game this year. But the Aggies forced three-and-out drives on the Huskies on the first two defensive possessions of the game.
Legas and Royals continued to make plays and keep up the scoring, Legas making plays with his arm and legs, Royals mostly with his speed. Shortly after USU tied the game up a 17-17 following an Elliott Nimrod 37-yard field goal, Royals caught a screen pass and sprinted 71 yards down the field for a touchdown that gave the Aggies’ their first lead against any FBS opponent this year.
Royals made use of his speed again, outrunning the coverage on a 52-yard touchdown that gave the Aggies an adequate response to a UConn touchdown drive that had tied the game at 24-24.
Utah State and UConn traded field goals to take the 31-24 game to 34-37. And at the 3:40 mark of the fourth quarter, the Aggies got a massive stop, sacking Ta’Quan Roberson on his own 1-yard line and forcing a punt from the Huskies. USU had the chance to run out the clock but went three-and-out, handing the ball to UConn with 2:41 on the clock.
UConn’s drive was a masterpiece of a two-minute drill, marching 85 yards in 161 seconds of game time, capping off the drive on a one-yard run to bring the score to 34-33 with just 40 seconds left in regulation. Everyone in the stadium was gearing up for an overtime period, but USU sophomore safety Ike Larsen had much different plans.
IKE LARSEN! THAT IS ALL!!September 30, 2023
Larsen broke through the left side of the field goal block unit and snuffed out Joe McFadden’s PAT, keeping the score at 34-33 and stunning and ripping the hearts out of the Huskies and the home crowd. One onside kick recovery (fittingly reeled in by the offensive hero, Royals) and the game was completely in hand and took only one kneel-down to finish.
Notes and Quotes
Slow starts haven’t gone away yet
It’s become a point of emphasis for Anderson to try and find a way to get his team to start games well but nothing changed on Saturday. Utah State accomplished nothing on offense through the first 22 minutes (the first “accomplishment being the first time the offense moved the chains at the 7:56 mark of the second quarter) and didn’t score until there was 14 seconds left in the second quarter.
The defense kind of started off well with back-to-back stops, but still gave up the 253 yards and 17 points — in just the first half — to the worst offense in the country.
After the loss to James Madison, in both post-game and Monday press conferences, Anderson said he and the coaching staff would be looking for answers. He said some things were changed, but the result clearly didn’t change.
“We tried to keep the gameplan as simple as we could,” Anderson said. “Tried our best to alleviate any distractions that we could. We talked about (being) laser-focused and everybody just trying to eliminate any distractions that were possible. We coached technique extremely diligently this week. And package-wise offense and defense we tried to make it relatively basic and simple early to give ourselves the best chance to operate.”
This is the first time this season Utah State’s overcome it’s own issues with poor first-quarter play. It’s unlikely to start a new trend so Anderson will need to find a way to solve this issue as conference play begins in earnest next week.
Hillstead knocked out of game, Legas fills in perfectly
The hit Hillstead took in the second quarter kept him out of the remainder of the game and he went to the locker room shortly after walking off the field. With the helmet-to-helmet contact, it was no surprise when Anderson said postgame that the freshman’s ailment was a concussion. His status will remain up in the air all of next week as Anderson said he won’t put Hillstead in harm’s way.
Utah State under Hillstead had seen notable improvements in the passing game, with Hillstead throwing for 730 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in appearances across four games, although Legas filled in admirably and the offense didn’t skip a beat, a fact Anderson was proud of.
“Super-proud of Cooper Legas, just being able to come in the way he did,” Anderson said. “We talked about this a couple weeks ago that at some point this season we were going to need him to come off the bench and be ready, and he was. He did a great job of being calm and collected and ready to do the things we needed to to win.”
Legas only threw two incompletions all day and finished with 204 yards and a career-high tying three touchdown passes to go with 26 yards rushing.
Jalen Royals break-out game
The junior wide receiver has already been a consistent target for USU’s quarterbacks this season, having 19 catches for 197 yards and two touchdowns coming into today, but he absolutely went off on Saturday. He finished the game with a career-highs in catches (seven), yards (185) and touchdowns (three). He scored on catches of 71 and 52 yards, causing issues for UConn with his speed.
“What Jalen did today doesn’t surprise any of us that were on the plane out here. We’ve been seeing that all spring, all summer, all fall camp,” Anderson said.
Perhaps part of what led to Royals’ ability to get open was the focus the Huskies placed on USU’s season leader in receptions, Terrell Vaughn. Vaughn entered the game second in the nation in total receptions but was held to zero by UConn. But that extra attention may have left the speedy Royals with plenty of space to get open for long passes.
“If somebody wants to double Terrell, as much as I love him, if he wants to take two guys or three guys with him that just makes life that much fun and enjoyable for the other guys,” Anderson said. “We trust every guy we put out there and we don’t mind throwing it to any of them.”
Ike Larsen again a hero on special teams
Larsen’s blocked kick was the first PAT the sophomore has blocked, but it’s the fifth blocked kick overall of his short career. This most recent one was simply the most dramatic of his collegiate career.
“The guy has a knack for getting there, as you know,” Anderson said. “And the game’s not over until the game’s over. You’ve got to give our guys credit. It would have been real easy to, after giving up the touchdown, to zone out on the extra point.”
According to Larsen, the coaching staff identified the left side of UConn’s block unit (right side from USU’s perspective) as having a weakness. They didn’t end up using it to its fullest potential on either of the Huskies’ field goal attempts, but wound up finding a use for it on the final PAT.
Aggies face unique weapon from UConn
Jelani Stafford, a 303-pound defensive tackle for UConn, has also served as a fullback for the team in short yardage situations. He did so against the Aggies and was spectacular in the role. Stafford ran the ball five times — four of those with either one or two yards to go for a first down or TD — and gained a first down twice and a touchdown two other times, ending the day with five carries for 11 yards and the two scores. He also caught a pass out of the backfield for a 10-yard gain.
“Obviously it’s not something you see every day. Unique environment and individual,” Anderson said. “They utilize him well. He’s powerful. He did pretty much everything I think but throw a touchdown pass today. Got to give a guy credit to be able to able to handle that much of what they give him and he does create a problem. He’s a big, massive dude. Hat’s off to him and what they’re doing to utilize him.”
Turning an opponent’s weaknesses into strengths
With UConn starting 0-4 there were a few weaknesses the team. Scoring offense (ranked 130th of 130 teams), total offense (124th), run offense (106th), run defense (96th), turnovers forced (125th) were all areas of the game where the Huskies ranked poorly or near last in the country. And yet these were parts of the game where UConn shined against the Aggies.
Whereas the Huskies rushing offense averaged just 118.0 yards per game, they gained 218 on the Aggies. UConn’s 286.2 total yards per game went up to 476 for the day. A 13.0 points per game average (and season-high 17 entering Saturday’s game) became 33 points. A run defense giving up 154.2 rushing yards per game held USU to just 101 and an average of 3.2 yards per carry. One turnover forced the entire season by UConn and it got two interceptions on the Aggies.
This game ended up a win for Utah State, and Anderson and the rest of the team are right in celebrating that fact. But there’s a lot of work for these Aggies to do if success is going to be continued beyond the month of September.
Utah State players are in bold, James Madison players in italics.
- Ta’Quan Roberson – 24/33, 258 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
- Cooper Legas – 11/13, 204 yards, 3 TD
- McCae Hillstead – 6/11, 111 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
- Victor Rosa – 15 att, 92 yards
- Cam Edwards – 13 att, 73 yards
- Cooper Legas – 6 att, 26 yards
- McCae Hillstead – 6 att, 26 yards
- Jelani Stafford – 5 att, 11 yards, 2 TD
- Jalen Royals – 7 rec, 185 yards, 3 TD
- Cameron Ross – 7 rec, 70 yards
- Colby Bowman – 1 rec, 63 yards, 1 TD
- Brett Buckman – 4 rec, 56 yards
- Justin Joly – 4 rec, 47 yards
- Jackson Mitchell – 15 tackles (5 solo), 0.5 TFL, 1 INT
- MJ Tafisi – 13 tackles (4 solo)
- Anthony Switzer – 10 tackles (7 solo), 3 TFL, 1 Sack
- Devin Dye – 10 tackles (4 solo), 1 INT
- Tui Faumuina-Brown – 8 tackles (2 solo), 1 TFL
- Ike Larsen – 6 tackles (5 solo), 1 pass breakup, 1 blocked kick
By the Stats
- Utah State has now been outscored 67-7 in the first quarter of games this season, 60-0 against FBS teams
- Utah State has now outscored opponents 177-102 in the second/third/fourth quarters combined.
- Ta’Quan Roberson completed 72.7 percent of his passes (24 for 33) on Saturday. Going into the game UConn had completed just 51.6 percent of its passes as a team with Roberson sitting at 52.2 percent on the season.
- *Utah State’s 17-point come-from-behind win is tied for the fourth-largest comeback in school history and largest since 2015 when it overcame a 27-7 third quarter deficit against Nevada to post a 31-27 win.
- *Utah State is now 9-1 under head coach Blake Anderson in one-score games, including a 1-1 record this year.
- *Utah State has now posted 13 wins under Anderson when trailing at some point in the game, including rallying from double-digit deficits in eight games.
- *Jalen Royals is the first Aggie to have three touchdown catches in a game since Hunter Sharp also had three at Air Force in 2015.
- *Royals’ 185 receiving yards are the most by an Aggie since Deven Thompkins had 215 against New Mexico State in 2021
*Stat was provided by USU Athletics Media Relations
Mountain West Standings
Standings and results updated though Sept. 30 at 3:45 p.m.
|This Week’s Opponent
|vs San Diego State
|vs New Mexico
|vs Utah Tech
|@ Fresno State
|San Diego State
|@ Air Force
|34-33 W @ UConn
|San Jose State
NEXT UP FOR UTAH STATE — Oct. 7 vs Colorado State