Once expected to be the third-worst team in the Mountain West, Utah State instead went out and won its division for the second time since joining the conference and first time since 2013.
USU took care of what it could take care of Friday by blasting the New Mexico Lobos 35-10 on the road, and got some much-needed help from San Diego State who also played a Friday-morning kickoff game. The Aztecs downed Boise State 27-16 which broke up a three-way tie atop the Mountain Division. With the win over the Lobos, the Aggies guaranteed a division title regardless of whether Air Force, the other party in the three-way tie, won or not since USU beat the Falcons this year.
Last week’s loss to Wyoming will bite a little less since it ultimately won’t affect Utah State’s conference title game aspirations. Even if USU had won a week prior, it’d still have traveled to California to face SDSU. There’d just have been fewer stressed-out Aggies around dinner tables on Thanksgiving.
Here are six observations on what became a day of many individual achievements and will be a night of many celebrations.
1. A long journey to this moment, but it’s not over
Senior defensive end Nick Heninger isn’t one to cry after wins, but after the Aggies beat New Mexico in 2020 — what turned out to be the team’s only win that year — Heninger cried tears of joy. The adversity of a 1-5 season had so many players down on themselves and the team. Fast-forward to this year and a win over the Lobos had Utah State feeling on top of the world. Nine wins on the year, just the seventh nine-win season in program history, and a berth in the conference title game.
“It just feels so good to win,” Heninger said.
“The reason we have been successful,” Heninger added, “is because we trust in each other, we trust in our coaches and we trust in the process of our culture. And our culture has really propelled us forward to work through the adversity.”
Anderson, who enjoyed a two-round Gatorade bath on the sideline, called his experience since being hired in December an “amazing journey.”
“Beyond proud of this group of guys,” he said. “Just feel truly blessed to be going on this journey with him. It’s not over. I told them in the locker room ‘Don’t be satisfied with being there. Let’s go find a way to win it.’”
Anderson’s nine wins as a first-year head coach tie Matt Wells for most wins as a first-year coach at USU and also leads the nation among fellow rookie coaches. One more win next week would not only set a new record in that department, but would bring Utah State its first Mountain West championship in football and first conference title since 2012.
2. Bounce-back day for the defense
After allowing 605 yards last week at home, the USU defense was itching to get a bad taste out of its mouth. It did so early against New Mexico, dropping the Lobos for a loss on four of their first five snaps of the game.
“We had a great week of practice,” Heninger said. “The game plan was right and we were able to come out, we started hot which is very important. And our defense was able to set the tone early which I think definitely kept the momentum on our side and helped propel our offense to score points. It was a great start.”
Through nearly three quarters, Utah State shut out New Mexico. A 41-yard field goal with 1:04 left in the third finally took the goose egg off the Lobo side of the scoreboard. A garbage-time touchdown pass allowed UNM to say they found the end zone and put up double-digit points.
“The only touchdown came on a bunch of young dudes that have not played,” Anderson said. “The bulk of our defense played very solid all day. Very few mistakes, tackled well. They did what they’re supposed to do against an offense that’s beat up and struggling to get guys on the field.”
New Mexico totaled just 186 yards, the second-lowest total USU has held an opponent to this season (150 at San Jose State). The Lobos, who’ve tried to specialize as a rushing team this year, barely broke the century mark as a team and barely managed to gain more than two yards per rush attempt. Utah State finished with 12 tackles for loss, Heninger getting three of those himself (he now has 18.5 on the year).
3. The ‘other’ wide receivers have their day
According to Logan Bonner, the New Mexico defensive backs were lining up as deep as 20 yards off star receiver Deven Thompkins. A sound strategy to keep Thompkins’ numbers down but it helped Bonner spread the ball around to USU’s other talented wide-outs and let them feast for a second time this Thanksgiving weekend.
“(Thompkins) knows where he’s at, it comes with the territory,” Bonner said. “He knows that other guys can make plays and you saw it today. We’re not just a one-man team.”
Four USU wide receivers caught touchdown passes today: Derek Wright, Jordan Nathan, Brandon Bowling and Justin McGriff. By far, Wright had the most successful day, obliterating his old career-high in yards (83) by going for 150 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest highlight was a 76-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter that put USU up 28-0, unofficially turning the game from lopsided to a rout. Those two TD catches put Wright at 10 for the season. He’s now the 10th receiver in program history to have at least 10 touchdown receptions in a single season.
4. Thompkins gets his record
It wasn’t in the cards for Thompkins to break Kevin Curtis’ receiving yards record last week in the final home game of the season. This week, with just 24 yards needed to break Curtis’ 2001 mark of 1,531 yards, it was only a matter of when, not if, no matter the defense New Mexico played on him.
Thompkins went into the halftime break with 23 yards, good enough to tie Curtis. Only one catch with positive yards was needed for Thompkins to finally claim his record. He got that catch and yardage on the first drive of the second half. Bonner threw short right to Thompkins for a six-yard gain. On its face, the play wasn’t much, failing to get a first down (USU would punt two plays later) but Thompkins emphatically popped up off the turf and signaled downfield. He knew, and many of his teammates on the sidelines knew as they celebrated for a moment before moving on to the next play.
“He deserves it,” Bonner said. “He works so hard. He deserves to be in every accolade he’s in.”
Bonner may have also alluded to the fact that Thompkins, the nation’s leading receiver as of the end of last week, wasn’t among the finalists for the Biletnikoff Award but said “that’s OK, we’ll keep fighting.”
5. Bonner joins ‘the club’
After Bonner threw his fifth touchdown of the day, running backs coach and former USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton told the current Aggie signal-caller, “welcome to the club.”
That club Keeton referred to consists of the now six Utah State quarterbacks who have thrown five touchdown passes in a single game. Keeton is himself a member of this group along with Jordan Love, Anthony Calvillo, Brent Snyder and Tony Adams.
The list of Bonner’s achievements doesn’t end there, however. This week Bonner passed the 3,000-yard mark and is now fifth all-time with 3,242 yards and counting. Most notably, the fifth TD of the day marked Bonner’s 32nd of the year, which ties Love’s single-season record from 2018 (Keeton previously held the record with 27 in 2012).
6. QB health a question heading into championship game
Bonner has taken big hits all season. But it only ever takes one bad play to alter the course of a record-setting season. In the third quarter, Bonner had to fall on a fumble and appeared to be holding his ribs after getting up. With Utah State up 35-3 at that point, Bonner came out and Andrew Peasley took some snaps. Only Peasley also had to come out after landing hard on his right shoulder and third-stringer Cooper Legas took over for the remainder of the game.
Anderson expressed his frustration with that play in general saying “he took a shot that he shouldn’t have taken” but also expressed that he thinks Bonner will be ready for next week.
“I think Bonner will be fine,” he said. “Knowing him, that dude will be ready. He told me at the end when we were walking off ‘Coach, I’m good.’”
Bonner, as he has in previous post-game pressers, merely said “I’m OK.”