5 things we learned in Utah State’s win over UNLV

Is Deven Thompkins the best receiver to ever play for the Aggies?

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah State head coach Blake Anderson speaks to an official during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Anderson and the Aggies have a 4-2 record after beating UNLV on the road Saturday.

Utah State bounced back from its back-to-back losses to Boise State and BYU by downing UNLV 28-24 in Las Vegas Saturday. It’s the 13th straight win for the Aggies after a bye dating back to 2011. It’s also USU’s third fourth-quarter comeback win of the year.

It wasn’t an ideal win, barely beating an 0-5 Rebels squad, and the Aggies certainly weren’t ignorant of that. Blake Anderson said the team was “relieved, but down. They know we didn’t play well, but excited about a win.”

Here are five things we learned from Utah State’s ugly win in Sin City.

1. The Aggie defense will bend (and break) a lot but can come up with stops when it matters.

Just looking at the raw stats, Utah State’s defense is not good. Heading into Saturday the Aggies ranked 119th of 130 teams in total defense and dead last in the Mountain West. Through three quarters on Saturday, USU seemed poised to let an 0-5 UNLV team have its best offensive game of the season.

All of that changed in the fourth quarter.

In the final frame, the Aggies went from emulating the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs defense to being a reincarnation of the 1985 Chicago Bears unit. In the first three quarters, USU allowed 7.5 yards per play. In the fourth, UNLV gained seven yards. Total. The Aggies also forced two turnovers — a pair of interceptions by senior Shaq Bond.

That sudden defensive dominance allowed an offense struggling to put points on the board the time it needed to finally find the end zone again.

This sudden competence also showed up at Air Force and at Washington State. The Aggies were having one of their worst defensive games ever but stopped the Falcons one crucial time to allow Andrew Peasley to execute a game-winning drive. And against the Cougars, USU allowed three straight scoring drives in the second half but forced a crucial three-and-out to set up a Bonner game-winning touchdown drive.

2. Utah State will try to run the ball no matter what.

Through the first four games of the season, Utah State averaged a very healthy 213.5 rushing yards per game. With that production, it made sense for the Aggies to average 41.3 rush attempts per game. Gaining 5.2 yards per carry is a very good excuse to run the ball.

Well, the last two games have given Blake Anderson and the Aggies every reason to stop trying to run the ball. Against BYU, they gained just 22 yards on the ground and at UNLV were averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt early in the fourth quarter. But there was no way USU would abandon the run game.

“We had to at least continue to try to establish the run,” Anderson said. “You can’t just wholesale throw it every down. I don’t think anybody wants to be in that environment.”

In the end, Anderson’s stubbornness appeared to be vindicated by the results. Excluding the final kneel-down, USU gained 41 yards in its final eight attempts (5.1 average) which included Elelyon Noa’s game-winning 11-yard touchdown.

3. Deven Thompkins might be the best wide receiver in USU history

The senior wideout put on yet another masterclass on Saturday with 12 catches, 180 yards and two receiving touchdowns. The reception and TD totals are both career-best marks.

Thompkins has three games of at least 170 yards this season, tied with Kevin Curtis and Kevin Alexander for most such games in a single season. And should Thompkins hold to his 136.5 yards per game average, he’d wind up with more than 1,700 yards, shattering the single-season receiving yards record of 1,531 set by Curtis in 2001. Thompkins is also in range of the single-season touchdown reception record of 14, owned by Tracy Jenkins (1990).

4. Savon Scarver still has it

It’d been 336 days since the All-American had done what he does best: return kickoffs for touchdowns. But on Saturday, that streak finally ended as Scarver took a first-quarter kickoff 100 yards to the house.

“We’ve been frustrated for him,” Anderson said, ”because for the last five weeks, nobody really wants to kick it to him and the ones that did were kicking it six, seven yards deep (into the end zone).”

The long stretch without a return TD may have been getting to Scarver and his teammates, but Anderson had confidence in him and said he told Scarver all week in practice “You’re going to get one this week.”

This return touchdown, Scarver’s seventh of his career, is a special one as it ties him with four others — Tyron Carrier, Rashaad Penny, Tony Pollard and C.J. Spiller — for the most kickoff return TDs in a college career. And what’s more, he accomplished the feat in his hometown of Las Vegas, in front of childhood friends and family.

“To get the record at home just means so much,” Scarver said. “And I saw my mom right after the game — she ran up to me — and I saw my pops, my sister, just family and friends everywhere, and it just means everything to me.”

Scarver may or may not break the all-time record with this being his final season at USU, but Anderson’s words ring true about No. 11

“At the end of the day, that dude’s electric.”

5. Logan Bonner may throw an interception every game, but he can rebound from it (usually)

Bonner has thrown at least one interception in every game this season, the longest streak of pick-throwing he’s ever had and by far the most he’s thrown in any six-game stretch of his career. Saturday’s edition was particularly painful as it led to UNLV taking a 17-7 lead late in the first quarter.

Despite this, Bonner had a solid game. He completed 21 of 32 passes for his second-best completion percentage of the season and came two yards short of a second 300-yard passing game for 2021.

A similar sentiment is apparent in Bonner’s performances against Washington State, Air Force and North Dakota. Bonner threw picks in all of those games but completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each outing, averaged a combined 8.6 yards per attempt and had a 7-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Bonner’s lack of top-tier ability — exposed in the two home games against Boise State and BYU where Bonner threw more picks than touchdowns and completed less than half of his passes — will keep the Aggies from true greatness. But with luck, a finish near the top of the conference could be in the cards.