Heading into halftime of Friday night’s season opener, Utah State football coach Gary Andersen told ACC Network reporters that the back-and-forth offensive outburst between his team and host Wake Forest reminded him of a heavyweight title fight.
Not a bad analogy, considering it seemed to encapsulate the idea of two sluggers trading haymakers, scoring knockdowns, then having to pick themselves up on the canvas, only to do it all over again.
Unfortunately for USU, the Demon Deacons earned a late TKO, getting the go-ahead touchdown with 1:08 to play, then intercepting Heisman candidate Jordan Love for the third time in the game with just 17 seconds left, preserving Wake’s 38-35 victory in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In a game that featured almost 1,200 yards of total offense and saw the teams alternate each of the contest’s 11 scores, it was a defensive play, naturally, that sealed the outcome, with Wake picking off Love with the Aggies just 20 yards away from a potential game-winning score.
Love finished 33 of 48 for 416 yards and three touchdowns, but also had the trio of turnovers. Junior running back Jaylen Warren added 141 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries for USU.
After struggling for much of the game against Wake Forest’s run/pass-option attack, the Aggie defense finally began to show off a granite chin late, shutting down a pair of drives deep into the fourth quarter.
Utah State seemed in good position to salt the game away, as coach Gary Andersen — back with the Aggies for a second stint as head coach — turned to Warren late to bleed the clock with his team leading 35-31.
But with Wake Forest loading up against the run, earning a stop, and forcing a punt, they would get one more shot, having just 2:19 to traverse 89 yards.
As it turned out, they required only a few seconds to get 88 of those. The first play resulted in an 18-yard strike down the middle. The next saw 6-foot-3 Wake receiver Sage Surrat outjump his defender and streak down the sideline for an apparent touchdown. A review of the play, however, determined that a late-arriving Aggie forced Surrat’s knee down at the 1-yard line.
Again, the Aggie defense toughened up. Three times, the Deacons handed off to Cade Carney — who finished with 105 yards on the the ground — and three times USU stopped him short, setting up a pivotal fourth-and-goal.
This time, the Deacons went another route, with quarterback Jamie Newman lofting a perfectly placed pass to Kendall Hinton, who again outjumped the defender, high-pointed the ball, and brought it down safely for the score.
Still, given that four of USU’s five scoring drives in the game had taken less than two minutes, the Aggies weren’t done yet.
The Aggies’ final drive was disjointed, with Love initially uncorking several bombs deep downfield into coverage that were lucky not to be intercepted. Yet they haltingly picked up yardage, first when Love found Siaosi Mariner down the middle for 24 yards; then five more on a short completion to Caleb Repp; and a crucial additional 15 when another attempt to Repp resulted in a targeting penalty on Wake cornerback Nasir Greer.
With the ball now at at the 31-yard line — well within the effective range of kicker Dominik Eberle — USU seemed poised to at least force overtime.
One play later, that poise disappeared in a fog of ill-conceived aggression, as Love forced a throw into the right flat, and a diving Justin Strnad picked it off at the 20-yard line to finally seal the deal.
It was a disappointing conclusion for USU, which racked up 596 yards for the game, but might better remember the sting of consecutive first-quarter drives into the red zone concluding with a combined zero points — the former ending with a fourth-and-1 run by Warren being stuffed for no gain at the Wake 13; the latter terminating on a third-and-3 from the 4-yard line, when Love had his first interception picked off in the end zone.
Meanwhile, USU’s defense can take pride in a pair of goal-line stands — the first of which came in the second quarter to preserve a 14-10 lead; the latter coming in the third quarter to protect a 28-24 advantage. However, there will be little celebration about allowing the Deacons 579 total yards (401 of them through the air) and 30 first downs.
USU linebacker did rack up 24 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a sack for the game.
The Aggies will return to action on Saturday, Sept. 7, when they host Stony Brook in Logan.
WAKE FOREST 38, UTAH STATE 35
• The Aggies’ final drive ends when Jordan Love is intercepted just 20 yards from the end zone with 17 seconds left in the game.
• After USU’s defense keeps the ball on the end zone on Wake Forest’s final drive, the Deacons get the go-ahead score on a perfectly-placed two-yard pass.
• Love, the Heisman candidate, finishes 33 of 48 for 416 yards and three touchdowns, but his trio of interceptions proves costly.