5 observations from Utah State’s 31-point ‘upset’ win over San Jose State

A big second quarter and more stingy run defense helps the Aggies improve to 8-2

(Tony Avelar | AP) San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel (17) scrambles away from Utah State defensive tackle Hale Motu'apuaka (92) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, San Jose, Calif. Utah State won 48-17.

Utah State entered CEFCU Stadium as four-point underdogs to San Jose State but left with a 48-17 victory despite a 14-0 second-quarter deficit. It’s a win that keeps the Aggies on the inside track to appear in the Mountain West championship game for the second time in school history.

Head coach Blake Anderson his team likely felt “disrespected” by the fact the 7-2 Aggies (now 8-2) were underdogs to the 5-5 Spartans. Here are five observations on how USU made SJSU, and Vegas, look a little silly on Saturday.

1. Utah State shuts down the run (again)

Lately, the Aggie defense has been like a public pool — no running allowed. In the last three games, USU’s opponents have combined for 73 total rushing yards. Yes, three games and just 73 net rushing yards for teams facing the Aggies. And it took those teams 79 attempts to get even that total.

The Spartans’ contribution to that paltry run total amounted to 12 yards on 22 attempts. Six of those 22 attempts went for negative yards.

This dominance is quite the turnaround considering in five games from mid-September to mid-October Utah State yielded 243.0 rushing yards on average to opponents.

“We’ve gotten better and better all year long,” Anderson said. “We’re getting to know the group, the guys are getting to know us, really understanding the scheme. Obviously they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. They know what they’re playing for, and I think it’s energized these guys to just empty the tank and they’re doing that.”

Overall, the defense had quite the night. The only touchdown it conceded came on a short field after a lost fumble. Outside of that one drive, the Spartans never made it inside the red zone.

2. Explosive second quarter led the way on both ends

Utah State had four drives in the second quarter, and each drive resulted in points. The first three produced touchdowns while the fourth led to a field goal. This 24-point explosion flipped a 14-0 deficit into a 24-14 halftime lead for the Aggies.

The defense deserves just as much credit for the second-quarter run as the offense. San Jose State gained 82 yards in the first quarter. In the second, the Spartans had a net of -1 yard, going three-and-out twice and fumbling another drive away.

3. Logan Bonner continued his run of elite play

The senior signal caller’s stat line in the last three games is nothing short of elite. He’s completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, averaged 327.7 yards per game and thrown 12 touchdowns to two interceptions. This week, the yardage wasn’t as gaudy, a mere 263, but his four touchdowns were enough to make him the first QB in USU history to have three consecutive games with at least four TD passes.

Bonner managed to put up this record-breaking performance despite him giving up two early turnovers, a pick-six and a fumble, both of which resulted in touchdowns for the Spartans.

“One of the most important parts of playing this position is you’ve got to have a short memory,” Bonner said. “The next play could be something big so just do your job on each play.”

Mental toughness wasn’t the only thing the Texas native was tested on. Bonner hit the turf quite often thanks to the Spartans’ ferocious front seven. In the second quarter, Bonner stayed on the turf after one of those hits and eventually left the game briefly, leading to some snaps for backup Andrew Peasley. Bonner returned later in that same drive.

He brushed aside the significance of that hit — “I just got a good shot in the ribs, but I’ll be fine,” he said — and hopefully these hits won’t accumulate into something serious. In the end though he is, in Anderson’s words, a “tough sucker.”

4. Aggies compensate for their own turnovers by getting several of their own

Winning the turnover battle is always a goal for football coaches, Bonner’s turnovers made that difficult, but Utah State’s defense stepped up. The D recovered two fumbles and picked off San Jose quarterback Nick Starkel once to come up plus-one in the turnover department.

Ajani Carter led the way in producing those takeaways. The junior defensive back, or “striker” as he sometimes lines up as in Anderson’s scheme, had himself quite the night as he came up with two of the Aggies turnovers himself.

The first came at a huge time, with Utah State still trailing 14-7 and needing to continue the momentum. On a third-and-long, Carter chased down Nick Nash and poked the ball free for a strip-sack. Carter then chased down the forced fumble himself, recovering it on the SJSU four-yard line, barely losing his balance to prevent him from scooping and scoring.

Carter nearly scored on his other turnover, an interception late in the fourth quarter. Starkel’s passed bounced off the hands of tight end Derrick Deese and into the waiting mitts of Carter who took the ball all the way from USU’s 47 yard-line to SJSU’s eight.

“Man, I really should’ve house-called it,” Carter said of the interception. “But I was a little bit rusty with the ball in my hands.”

5. Always down, never out

In every road game this season Utah State has trailed by double digits. And yet, the Aggies are a perfect 5-0 in those contests. Some have finished closer than others like the thrillers at Washington State, Air Force and UNLV. The two others, New Mexico State and San Jose State, have been more like spotting the opponent a couple of scores and then boat-racing them the rest of the way.

It’s almost a running joke at this point. Should the Aggies find themselves down a couple of scores early in the game, it doesn’t mean trouble. Rather, USU has its foe exactly where they want them.