Tucson, Ariz. • Utah State’s first offensive play of overtime developed nicely. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Love launched a pass into the back-right corner of the end zone, where USU receiver Braelon Roberts waited to catch the ball.
Love’s pass, slightly underthrown, was tipped away by New Mexico State defender DeMarcus Owens. The would-be touchdown play typified the Arizona Bowl for Love and the USU offense in Friday’s 26-20 defeat.
So did a third-down incompletion in the end zone in overtime, soon after Love’s connection with Roberts moved his team to the 10-yard line. USU went 1 of 18 in third-down conversions, even while Love passed for 254 yards and the offense totaled 441 yards.
Somehow, the offense turned that production into only 13 points, after Savon Scarver’s kickoff return gave USU an early touchdown. And that’s why USU coach Matt Wells assessed Love’s performance only as “OK.”
“He did some good stuff,” Wells said, “and he did some stuff that he probably wishes he had back.”
Thanks to Larry Rose III’s 21-yard touchdown run that punctuated the NMSU Aggies’ first bowl appearance in 57 years, Love and the USU Aggies will have to live with a losing season (6-7). The story was looking more favorable for Love as the second half developed and USU seemingly was about to take control of the game.
Like its young quarterback, USU really needed to distinguish itself in the Arizona Bowl. Getting back into the bowl business after a one-year absence was healthy, but Wells’ program remained at a stage where winning Friday’s game would have been meaningful.
USU instead absorbed a defeat that created the wrong kind of ending to this season, resulting in “a hurtin’ locker room right now,” by Wells’ description.
The reality is that a genuinely good team would have put away NMSU in the second half, as USU threatened to do — and never quite could do. Those guys will have to live with the mixed outcome of a bowl-eligible season and a losing record, just as stemmed from a 2015 Potato Bowl loss to Akron.
So after 120 seasons of football, USU stands 540-540-31. A winning record, now and forever, was the Aggies’ for the taking. And they know it.
With considerable help from USU’s secondary, Love clearly was outplaying NMSU senior quarterback Tyler Rogers. Love finished 25 of 44 for 254 yards; Rogers went 29 of 54 for 191 yards.
In the end, USU lost because of the offense’s inability to sustain drives that appeared promising — and often ended in missed field-goal tries by Dominik Eberle, one of the country’s best kickers (inclusing an OT attempt that hit the right upright.
The most extreme example of USU’s failure to finish came after Love’s best pass of the game, a 41-yard sideline completion to Ron’quavion Tarver to the NMSU 1-yard line in the third quarter of a 13-13 game. Love then checked to an option play. NMSU linebacker Terrill Hanks deflected Love’s pitch and recovered the ball.
After NMSU drove to a tying touchdown with 6:31 remaining. USU had two more possessions in regulation. The first drive ended with Love’s incompletion after he scrambled on a third-and-5 play, and then his read-option keeper on third and 2 gained only 1 yard, forcing another punt.
So it was that the most productive games of Love’s first season ended in disappointing defeats, after he took the starting job from senior Kent Myers in October and helped USU qualify for a bowl game.
He passed for 284 yards in the regular-season finale at Air Force, a 38-35 loss, and came back with some nice numbers against NMSU.
Just not good enough, again. The ending should evoke “some internal fire and motivation for him during the offseason, to try to take his game to another level,” Wells said.
Learning how to finish would be a good place to start.