6 observations from Utah State’s comeback win at New Mexico State

Blake Anderson’s Aggies improve to 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner carries the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.

The first half provided a post-Halloween scare to Utah State. The Aggies of Logan spotted the 1-7 Aggies of New Mexico State a 10-0 first-half lead and were down 13-7 at the halftime break. But halftime deficits haven’t proved an obstacle before, and it wouldn’t be this time around as USU blew the doors off NMSU to eventually win 35-13.

Here are six observations from Utah State’s latest come-from-behind performance.

1. Two halves, two different Utah State football teams

USU head coach Blake Anderson didn’t mince words on his feelings about how his team played in the first half, calling it “very uninspiring football.” The Aggie offense, ranked 16th in the nation, could barely produce against the 119th-ranked New Mexico State defense.

Anderson brought up many reasons for the uninspiring start such as it being a road game late in the year in unseasonal (at least from a Logan perspective) 80-degree heat plus low energy from the crowd (there were less than 8,000 people in attendance in Las Cruces). All of that came together for a first half Anderson additionally called “lifeless.”

However, Utah State came out in the second half inspired and with plenty of life, scoring touchdowns on four straight drives throughout the half. The only drive the Aggies didn’t score on was the final drive where the clock ran out which cut off an 11-play drive USU was in the middle of.

“Very proud of the way the guys responded,” Anderson. “Challenged them at halftime and they came, moved the ball down and got a touchdown, (forced a) three-and-out, moved the ball, got a touchdown. Started looking like the team we’re capable of being. But that’s how we should have played the whole game.”

2. Aggies went back to the basics

Coming out of the halftime locker room, Utah State needed a spark on offense to kick-start a unit that had produced just 106 yards so far. But rather than complex adjustments, the Aggies looked back to the first days of camp for inspiration.

“We just went really, really simple in the second half,” Anderson said. “We stayed away from bells and whistles and just lined up and played Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 install football.”

“We played basic football,” senior wide receiver Deven Thompkins said. “What we’ve practiced since the spring. That’s all we ran for the rest of the game. That’s all we needed, just to play basic football because that’s what we execute perfectly every time we run it.”

That “basic football” worked to perfection as Utah State gained 351 yards in the second half alone, averaging 8.8 yards per play.

3. It’s Deven Thompkins’ world and we’re just living in it

Utah State’s star wideout is on the fast-track to capture the school’s single-season receiving record, but along the way Thompkins is racking up smaller achievements. This week Thompkins added his first 200-yard game to a growing résumé, catching nine passes for a career-high 215 yards. Crossing the 200-yard barrier is something the senior has been chasing with four games of 170-plus receiving yards so far this season, but not quite 200.

“I’m lost for words. It’s something I’ve just been wanting,” Thompkins said. “I’ve been getting close every single week and it’s like 100-yard games and 177-yard games is cool and all, but I’ve just been waiting for this 200-yard game.”

Thompkins now has 1,314 receiving yards on the season, most in the FBS, and is 217 yards away from Kevin Curtis’ USU single-season record of 1,531 set in 2001. Thompkins is not only chasing that record, but he’s also not satisfied with his career-high being 215 yards, which is ninth-most in a single game by an Aggie.

“In a way, it’s a relief, but it makes me even more hungry,” Thompkins said. “Being tied for ninth in school history, it’s cool, but I really want to be number one in school history so that’s what I’m after right now.”

4. The sacking of New Mexico State

NMSU quarterback Johah Johnson put together a pretty solid day at the office with 298 passing yards on 30-of-44 passing (68.2 percent). In the first half, Utah State could hardly keep Johnson from completing passes as he went 21-for-26 through the air in the first two quarters. But USU did find a way to slow down NMSU’s passing attack by discovering that it’s very hard for opposing QBs to complete passes while lying on their back.

“I thought early (New Mexico State) did a really good job of protecting (Johnson) and that’s how they move the ball,” Anderson said. “But we dialed up the intensity and little-by-little we started to fatigue them and played much, much better down the stretch.”

Utah State sacked Johnson seven times overall, splitting those sacks between seven different players — Shaq Bond, Nick Heninger, AJ Vongphachanh, Patrick Joyner Jr. (1.5 sacks), Byron Vaughns and Poukesi Vakauta (0.5 sacks).

5. Justin Rice comes up heroic yet again

While Rice leads the Aggies in tackles this season it’s often in other ways that the senior makes his impact for this team, such as forced fumbles or timely interceptions. On Saturday his knack for big plays took the form of blocking a New Mexico State field goal attempt on the first drive of the game. Were it not for this block, the southern Aggies might have built up just a little more momentum, not to mention a larger halftime lead.

Rice also recorded one tackle for loss in the game (along with his seven overall tackles) to give him 10.5 for the season. He’s the first Aggie to have at least 10 TFLs in a season since Tipa Galeai and David Woodward in 2018 and the 15th player to do it since 2005.

6. Anderson closing in on history as first-year coach

Earlier this season, Anderson became the first USU head coach to win his first three games since 1919. Now, Anderson is on track for more first-year magic.

By winning on Saturday, Anderson joined Tony Knap, Chuck Mills, Phil Krueger and Matt Wells as Aggie coaches to win at least seven games in their first season. If USU wins eight, that group will drop to just Anderson, Knap and Wells. Wells is the only one to win nine games as a rookie HC. With three regular-season games plus a bowl game and (maybe) a Mountain West championship game, two or three more wins are very much on the table.

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