Utah State’s win over Nevada was exactly what was needed and pretty much exactly what was expected of the Aggies. They went into the game as 14.5-point favorites and exited with a 17-point win.
It wasn’t a perfect victory, Anderson stated after the game that if “we could eliminate the penalties we’d score a couple more touchdowns,” potentially reaching even greater heights. Utah State committed 13 penalties for a loss of 125 yards, that yardage not including the 68 yards and six points lost on just one of those penalties that occurred on a Micah Davis house call on a punt return.
Anderson said he didn’t want to overreact to the penalties. The number of penalties didn’t exactly bring him joy, but there didn’t seem to be a ton to be extremely worried about.
“Don’t want to overreact too much considering that we both had a lot (of penalties) and there were a lot of flags thrown inside the box. Just seemed to be one of those games,” Anderson said. “Watching on tape, some of them were legitimate. A handful of them were pretty quick flags. I think that’s one of those that kind of comes week-by-week with the personality of the crew. That particular crew was calling the box really, really tight.”
Utah State’s penalty woes from last season and earlier this season have largely passed it by, this game hopefully being a hiccup in that recovery. And there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to issues this team needs to figure out for the remaining two games of this season will go. The Aggies need one more out of those two if a bowl guarantee will come their way.
Some three weeks ago, I wrote there were two keys to Utah State getting to a bowl game: win in the trenches, and get the defense off the field on third down. The Aggies’ recent losses at the time of that article (to Fresno State and San Jose State) could largely be attributed to a lack of those two things. And the last two wins could probably be attributed to Utah State doing both of those things.
On offense the Aggies had been plagued by constantly allowing pressure to its quarterbacks and not giving rushing lanes to the running backs. Looking specifically at pass protection, between the games against Fresno State and San Jose State, USU’s two quarterbacks, McCae Hillstead and Cooper Legas, were pressured on 35.7 percent of dropbacks. That rate dropped by nearly 10 percent down to 27.0 the last two weeks.
When Hillstead and Legas got a clean pocket, they were both good, even great, quarterbacks. They combined to complete _ percent of passes, average _ yards per attempt and throw five touchdowns to two interceptions. Collectively they had a 120.1 NFL passer rating with a clean pocket. Contrast that to their combined passer rating under pressure that is literally 0.0, the worst it can actually be.
Having a quarterback that doesn’t have to constantly run for their life is, believe it or not, a massive boost to the offense.
“When we can cover people up then I think we can be as explosive as anybody in the country. We’ve shown that at times,” Anderson said. “When we struggle up front, it makes it really, really difficult. That’s asking a lot of any quarterback.”
In terms of raw yardage, the Fresno State/San Jose State games were better off, with 523 combined yards to just 411 in the SDSU/Nevada games. But nearly everything else tips the other way, from passer rating (jump from 82.0 to 93.8), completion percentage (58.0 to 63.0) and number of interceptions thrown (from four down to two).
In this case, quality very much trumps quantity.
As for the run game, while it’s not fair to say the Aggies weren’t able to run the ball at all in their last two losses. They averaged eclipsed 200 rushing yards against Fresno State, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. But wouldn’t you know, that’s the game where the Aggies lost by just five points to the team currently third in the Mountain West standings. And the next week when Utah State ran for just 104 yards, it resulted in a 21-point loss to San Jose State. Go figure.
Struggles in the run game also popped up in losses to Air Force and James Madison, and also contributed to struggles against UConn. Utah State didn’t average more than 3.2 yards per carry in any of those three games and also averaged just 3.2 per attempt at San Jose State. In fact, in games where USU averaged 3.2 yards per carry or less, the point differential in games is -45 and the the Aggies have a 1-3 record (the one win being by one point over a team that is 1-9 this year). In all other games, Utah State is 4-2 with a point differential of +80 (+30 if you want to factor out the Idaho State game).
Nevada and San Diego State are among the games the Aggies were above the 3.2 yards per carry mark, and this week’s game was among the best with Utah State tallying 292 yards of rushing offense. According to Anderson, this week’s dominance in the run game had a lot more to do with better matchups between their offensive line and the Wolf Pack defensive line, among a couple other factors such as health and scheme.
“The physical matchups were a little bit more in our favor than they have been in previous weeks,” Anderson said. “The movement that you get from San Jose (State) and San Diego State and Colorado State and (James Madison) and some of these fronts. You’re talking about really dynamically built fronts that move, and that’s been a problem. We matched up better against Nevada.”
That’s not too encouraging, since if whether or not your O-line has good matchups is a primary factor in being able to run the ball or protect the quarterback isn’t the most sustainable thing. It means the Aggies can’t control whether or not they win the battle at the line of scrimmage. That’s not what Anderson said, but given the correlation of when Anderson said the matchups were or were not in their favor and whether or not the Aggies have seen success on the O-line is a pretty strong correlation, it’s hard to saying that such a statement is wrong.
Controlling the trenches didn’t mean just the offense, though. It also meant control the trenches on defense. The Aggies have done better in controlling the opposing run game. San Diego State had just 121 rushing yards, half of that coming on just one play, a 62-yard rush that set up the Aztecs’ first touchdown of the game. Against Nevada, Utah State had a strong second half in stopping the run, holding the Wolf Pack to 3.3 yards per carry in the third and fourth quarters, the part of the game where the Aggies completed the job of pulling away and clinching the game.
As for the second half of those two keys, the defense getting stops on third down, the Aggies have been far, far better these last two weeks. The Aztecs went a decent 7 of 18 on third-down conversions, but it was below USU’s then-season average of 44.6 percent and well below the 60 percent conversion rate allowed against Fresno State and San Jose State. Even better was the 3 of 14 conversion rate Nevada have. It’s surely been a relieving sight to Anderson and defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen to see the opposing conversion rates in free-fall.
As a final note for this article, an ode to the big-man touchdown from Seni Tuiaki, the viral moment of the afternoon.
Tuiaki got to live the dream of every lineman in existence. A rushed pass attempt from AJ Bianco fell well short of its intended receiver and perfectly into the hands of Tuiaki in the backfield and the sophomore had nothing but green turf standing between him and the blue turn of the end zone. One 63-yard scamper later and Tuiaki had scored his first touchdown. Ever.
BIG MAN TOUCHDOWN!
— USU Football (@USUFootball) November 11, 2023
“All I knew is I just had to run. Run, run, run,” Tuiaki said.
Naturally, Tuiaki had a grin wider than the 63-yards he ran for that touchdown on his face in the post-game presser. He joked with broadcasters and reporters about running as fast as he did because he saw McDonalds in the end zone, discussing his love for their food and sharing his favorite order from the fast food giant (four triple cheeseburgers and a double quarter pounder, if you were curious).
It made a fun moment for Tuiaki all the more fun. But mixed in all of this was a moment where Tuiaki opened up and shared just how much more this singular snap meant to him given the context of his career.
In 2022, Tuiaki pushed his way into the defensive line rotation as just a redshirt freshman. He played in the first four games of the season, logging 137 snaps. But that 137th play changed the course of Tuiaki’s young career. Late in the first quarter, UNLV scored a touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak. Players were stacked on top of each other and Tuiaki was at the bottom. As everyone else got up, Tuiaki stayed on the ground. He couldn’t. Tuiaki had broken his leg. Training staff attended to him for several minutes and the redshirt freshman was carted off the field. He wouldn’t return to play a game on Merlin Olsen Field until a couple months ago on Sept. 9 against Idaho State.
“For me personally it’s a humbling experience, to be honest,” Tuiaki said. “Been through a lot, last year with the major injury that cause me to (miss) the season. Just to see how God planned my life after that. It’s just an amazing experience.”
Not only did Tuiaki have a major change in his own life, but his family suffered a loss too, adding to the moment emotionally.
“I lost my little brother in June and I know he was watching. It was definitely for him,” Tuiaki said.
Tuiaki’s touchdown against Nevada was just one snap out of 51 he played that afternoon. One snap out of 465 this season. And the fact Tuiaki has played well over 400 snaps is probably more important than the six points he scored on that one play.
This year, Tuiaki has been an iron man, starting all 11 games for the Aggies to this point and ranking third in total snaps played in the Mountain West among interior defensive linemen (yes, more than Hale Motu’apuaka).
Tuiaki’s story isn’t the most unique or extraordinary story. Thousands of athletes get injured, work hard to rehab, and return to have solid careers. But it’s special to him, those closest to him, and Aggie Nation. Few outside the program noticed his absence last year, and perhaps not enough have noticed his return to play this year. But Tuiaki has. Saturday’s touchdown gave him a chance to celebrate what’s been a season-long celebration of his ability to get back to playing a sport he loves.