Utah State never trailed against Hawaii, winning handily 51-31 and recording its highest margin of victory against an FBS opponent this season. While not a perfect game, the Aggies played at a high level in all three phases of the game, avoiding an upset loss to a Warriors team that had taken down at-the-time ranked Fresno State three games prior.
Here are six observations from USU’s Saturday matinee in Logan.
1. The Aggies are going bowling
Utah State broke its streak of three consecutive seasons with a bowl appearance thanks to last year’s 1-5 squad, but that drought will stay at just one season. The Aggies will participate in a bowl game for the ninth time in their last 11 seasons.
“I never doubted that we would be bowl eligible, I really didn’t,” Anderson said. “Watching this team work in the offseason, watching how they’ve progressed in fall camp. I didn’t know if it was going to be pretty or not but we were going to find a way.”
Even with this accomplishment on the books, Anderson is, as he has been all season, focused on bigger things than just the bare minimum expected of him and the team.
“I want them to celebrate but I don’t want them to be satisfied by any means. That is not our goal,” Anderson said. “We want to keep getting better and we want to make a run at this thing and I think we’ve put ourselves in a great position to do so.”
2. Aggies get back to stopping the run
In the last three games, Utah State’s allowed 210 rushing yards per game and never fewer than 190. The lack of consistency from the run defense has made each of the last three games very difficult to win. This time out, things were much easier since the Aggies allowed just 12 rushing yards. As in 12 yards total. Even filtering out the lost rushing yards via sacks (a quirk of NCAA stat keeping), Hawaii didn’t crack 50 yards on deliberate runs.
“The last several games We’ve been outmatched physically size-wise. (Hawaii) looked a little bit more like us, thought that might help us,” Anderson said. “Really just came out and executed the gameplan really, really well.”
Bottling up the Hawaii run attack is something a lot easier said than done. In the last four games, the Warriors had averaged 224.5 rushing yards per game. Dedrick Parson, the starter for Saturday, was coming off a 161-yard outing against New Mexico State and had averaged 5.7 yards per rush so far. Hawaii were missing top rusher Dae Dae Hunter who averaged 7.2 yards per carry but has now missed the last two games for the Warriors.
3. Deven Thopmkins first USU player to pass 1,000 yards in a while
Plenty of Utah State receivers have left a positive mark in the last couple of decades, from Travis Reynolds to Hunter Sharp to Ron’quavion Tarver and Siaosi Mariner. But in nearly 20 years, no Aggie pass-catcher had surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark. Until Thompkins this week. On a catch in the first half, Thompkins crossed that threshold, becoming the first to do it since Kevin Curtis in 2002. Thompkins’ 176 yards in this game puts him at 1,099 in just eight games.
A huge part of the 5-foot-8 receiver’s game is an ability to win jump ball situations down the field despite his diminutive stature. That ability was once again on full display as Thompkins reeled in multiple downfield throws, some through double-coverage.
“He plays bigger than he is,” Bonner said. “He’s a special player.”
“He just is a huge spark plug,” Anderson said. “He elevated a couple of times in one-on-one situations and played above the rim. That’s not something everybody can do, especially if they’re 5-foot-8.”
4. Everyone gets a career game
With an offensive showing this good, plenty of Aggies had the best days of their career. Running back Elelyon Noa rushed for 111 yards, a career-high and the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career. Deven Thompkins, in addition to passing the 1,000-yard mark for the season, set a career-high in all-purpose yards with 221 (176 receiving yards plus 45 yards on a kick return). Bonner set a season-high in passer rating with 215.1. He threw for 361 yards, tied a career-high with four touchdown passes and completed at least 70 percent of his passes for the third time in his career. Perhaps most notably, he broke his streak of throwing interceptions in every game this season.
Career days weren’t reserved for just offensive players, though. Defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka recorded 1.5 sacks, getting to Hawaii’s QB on back-to-back plays. Those were the first sacks of Motu’apuaka’s career. Byron Vaughns menaced the Warriors all over the field, having his hands in multiple turnovers. He deflected a pass in the end zone that Cach Gilliam wound up intercepting and later forced a fumble. Vaughns also caused trouble in the backfield with two sacks and an additional tackle for loss.
5. Warriors crept a little closer than preferred
Heart doctors around Logan are becoming rich men off of Utah State’s penchant for close wins this season. Saturday appeared to be a deviation from that, but Hawaii made the contest a little too close for comfort in the second half.
A 14-yard pitch-and-catch from Bonner to Brandon Bowling set the score at 41-10, Aggie advantage, with 4:37 left in the third. The fans that left at that point missed out on Hawaii outscoring Utah State 21-3 over the next eleven minutes of game time.
The final touchdown in that span came while Utah State’s offense was on the field. Andrew Peasley — in at quarterback for Bonner for reasons likely related to the then-19 point lead with less than nine minutes to play in the game — fumbled the ball in the backfield and Hawaii returned the rock 60 yards for a touchdown.
“We did some very silly things that made it a lot more interesting than it should have been,” Anderson said. “It’s frustrating, but at the same time we did some big things too. We responded when we needed to.”
USU’s response to the 21-3 run was for Bowling to complete one of the more unique feats in football. Hawaii attempted an onside kick after the 60-yard fumble return, but Bowling snagged the kick off the bounce and ran it back for a 45-yard return touchdown. That play killed Hawaii’s momentum and allowed the Aggies to ice the game.
6. Best start to a game by Utah State this season
No one would accuse Utah State of being a good first-quarter or even first-half team this season. Only once before this week did USU lead at halftime. Nevertheless, the Aggies got out to a hot start on a chilly Saturday afternoon. Both offense and defense were solid. The defense, for the first time this year, held its opponent to a three-and-out on the opening drive. The offense then went down and scored a touchdown on their first series — just the second time that’s happened all year (North Dakota being the other).