Aggies defense, special teams raised ruckus against San Diego State

Utah State quarterback Jordan Love throws a pass during the first quarter against San Diego State in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in San Diego. Love did not complete a touchdown pass in the game, but the Aggies achieved their first win over the Aztecs in 52 years. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Utah State’s offense has been hogging the spotlight recently, especially as the school hypes quarterback Jordan Love as a Heisman Trophy candidate. The defense and special teams, meanwhile, have quietly been keeping the Aggies at the tip of the tongue when it comes to conversations about Mountain West Conference title contenders.

In a conference-opening 23-17 win over San Diego State in which Love didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, the USU defense bookended the victory with two strong stands. First, the Aggies limited the Aztecs to a field goal on their opening attack — a 16-play, 70-yard drive — then further hamstrung their opponent with a pick-6 by junior safety Shaq Bond. As a closing act, USU’s defense thwarted the Aztecs’ comeback when Nick Heninger and Justus Te’i chased San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew to his own 2-yard line after the Aztecs got the ball with 1:18 left and just a touchdown standing between them and victory.

“This was a defensive game for us, I think. Obviously without that pick-6 from Shaq, it would have been a whole different game,” Heninger, a junior defensive end, said Monday. “And then our offense at the end of the game got us down the field. We weren’t able to finish off with a field goal, so our defense had to go back out and we did enough to win.”

The win was just the second in 14 meetings for the Aggies (2-1, 1-0) and USU’s first against the Aztecs (2-1, 0-1) since 1967.

“ ‘Man, it feels like we haven’t beat these guys since ’nam,' " Heninger recalled someone remarking in the locker room during the postgame celebration. "And I was like, ‘Hold up, when was the last time you beat them? I think it was since Vietnam!' It was awesome for the program to get that win and to be able to stop them in the run that they pride themselves at.”

For his efforts, Bond was named the College Sports Madness Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week and USU’s student-athlete of the week.

Kicker Dominik Eberle also drew some attention to USU’s special teams play. The senior earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week honors Monday after he scored a season-high 11 points against the Aztecs. Eberle converted both his extra-point attempts to move him into a tie for the Aggies’ career high of 136. He also converted three of four field-goal attempts, from 30, 29 and 32 yards, respectively.

His fourth field-goal attempt, a 42-yarder late in the fourth quarter, would have sealed the Aggies’ win without the last-minute heroics if it hadn’t veered wide right.

“You could look at the one and say that didn’t go our way, but all the other ones did,” Aggies head coach Gary Andersen said. “They were big, they were huge. In that setting, it’s a six-point game. From the snapper to holder to kicker, they’ll get that done, they’ll load it up and he’ll get back out there. (Eberle will) have a smile on his face today. That smile will have a cringe in it for sure, which it should. He’ll be excited to come out and show everybody exactly what he’s all about in those moments.”

Andersen appeared equally nonplussed about Love’s lack of touchdowns. Perhaps that is because there is no denying the quarterback’s talent or the strength of the USU offense. After Saturday’s performance, the Aggies rank sixth in the nation in overall offense with an average of 562.7 yards per game and are fifth in passing offense (367 YPG). They also rank seventh nationwide in sacks allowed (0.67 per game), 14th in third down conversions (52.2%), 22nd in scoring (40.0 points per game) and 30th in red zone defense (72.7 percent).

That offense could meet its match Saturday when Colorado State comes to Logan for the Aggies’ homecoming game. The Rams are potent on offense, though they may be less so with their leading rusher and second-leading receiver possibly sidelined with injuries for their conference opener. Running back Marvin Kinsey Jr., who is averaging 8.2 yards a carry and has scored five touchdowns in four games for the Rams, has a separated shoulder. Warren Jackson, a receiver who has three touchdowns on 37 catches for 327 yards, is doubtful after suffering a possible concussion in the waning minutes of CSU’s loss to Toledo last weekend.

CSU also lost its starting quarterback to an ACL tear in its second game of the season. Nonetheless, the Rams still managed to light up the scoreboard Saturday behind Patrick O’Brien. A nimble, 6-foot-5, 255-pound beast, O’Brien completed 32 of 52 attempts for 405 yards and a touchdown.

“There's a lot of weapons,” Andersen said. “That last game they played was a track meet. It was up and down the field on both sides, I suppose. … I have watched their offense and it was a very, very powerful offense for that three-and-a-half hours. They have some good football players."

It’ll be on the Aggies’ defense and special teams to silence CSU’s offense Saturday night so the team can make some noise heading into a nationally televised game against No. 4 LSU on Oct. 5.

“You want to be coming in with a lot of momentum against that team, because they’re obviously a good SEC, top-10 team right now," Heninger said. "But we’ve got Colorado State this week. We’ll focus there, build that momentum, get us ready and right for that game, and take it on when it comes.”