Utah State claims Mountain West title over No. 19 San Diego State, continues turnaround season

Aggies quarterback Logan Bonner sets a MWC title game record with four touchdowns

(John McCoy | AP) Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner (1) drops back to pass as Utah State linebacker Tyson Chisholm (43) rushes in the first half during an NCAA college football game for the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif.

Carson, Calif. • The chant echoed through Dignity Health Sports Park in the third quarter during a television timeout, from the shady side of the field where a multitude of Utah State fans were sitting. They were watching their Aggies pummel the No. 19 San Diego State Aztecs in the Mountain West Championship Game, and now they could gloat.

“Overrated!” they shouted, while the few San Diego State supporters — who themselves had made a long drive to their temporary home for the final time — sitting across the field in the Saturday sun had no response.

A team that has defied expectations all year, Utah State continued its turnaround season in its biggest game of the year with a 46-13 victory over No. 19 San Diego State for the Mountain West title in front of 13,445 fans.

“We felt all week that the only people who truly believed we could do this were the guys in the room,” head coach Blake Anderson said. “Across the country, all the conversation and all the chatter was really about San Diego State. We used that to really fuel our week of prep.”

The win clinches the Aggies’ first Mountain West title in program history, a feat that — coming off a 1-5 season — seemed far-fetched just three months ago.

But the Aggies always believed they belonged in the conversation.

“We felt disrespected this whole year, and we definitely felt disrespected coming into this week,” quarterback Logan Bonner said. “So we just played with a chip on our shoulder and got it done.”

Utah State (10-3, 7-2) will likely play in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 18, while San Diego State (11-2, 7-2) awaits a bowl placement but has likely been eliminated from contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl.

The Aggies also remain unbeaten on the road (7-0) this season, extending a program record.

Bonner threw for 318 yards and a Mountain West championship game-record four touchdowns and completed a season-high 29 passes. Wide receiver Brandon Bowling had eight receptions for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns, including a 58-yard score that opened up a 21-3 lead for the Aggies on the first drive of the second half.

Bonner threw one interception, but “other than that, I thought he played flawless,” Anderson said. “Really did a good job of taking what they gave us and spreading the ball around to everybody, and I thought that was a big key in trying to make them play the whole field.”

The 46 points were the most allowed by San Diego State this season, while the 13 points were the lowest the Aztecs have put up. Even sure-footed punter and placekicker Matt Araiza was shaky with two punts blocked, one leading to a safety in the third quarter after he kicked it off the back of a teammate and into his own end zone.

San Diego State entered the game shorthanded, with 20 players unavailable because they were in COVID-19 health and safety protocols — which impacted the tight end, wide receiver and offensive line positions — head coach Brady Hoke confirmed after the game.

Hoke said he was “surprised” and didn’t know what stemmed the outbreak, adding that his players have done a “great job” for the past 18 months with COVID-19 protocols. He refused to speculate on the players’ availability for the bowl game.

“There are no excuses,” Hoke said. “We’ve got to go out and play with the hand we are dealt. When things are out of your control a little bit, we’re not happy about it obviously, but it’s important when you look at continuing with health and welfare.”

San Diego State entered the game tied for a school record with 11 wins, earning a spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings every week. But the Aztecs could not find much rhythm offensively and were gashed defensively in the air. Jordan Brookshire, the backup quarterback starting in place of the injured Lucas Johnson, was 11 for 23 for 117 yards.

“Very frustrating,” wide receiver Jesse Matthews said. “Obviously, we didn’t do what we needed to do to win. We just made too many mistakes, missed too many opportunities.”

Utah State led 14-3 at halftime on a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, striking first on a five-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone from Bonner to wide receiver Derek Wright, who just kept both feet inbounds.

The Aggies then took advantage of good field position off a missed 54-yard field goal attempt by Araiza. Running back Calvin Tyler Jr. highlighted the drive with a physical 17-yard run in the red zone, spinning off would-be tacklers to the goal line before punching in the touchdown with a 1-yard rush on the ensuing play.

The win punctuates a stellar first year for Anderson at the helm of Utah State, which was picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West Mountain division in the preseason. Anderson, who left Arkansas State after last season for Utah State, said he felt it was the right move all along.

But even he couldn’t have predicted a Mountain West title in his first season.

“None of us really saw this coming,” Anderson said. “This is always the goal. It always is. We don’t talk about it, but you know what you’re fighting for.”