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In Mountain West title game, Utah State football looks to defy expectations once more

The Aggies take on No. 19 San Diego State on Saturday in Carson, Calif.

(Andres Leighton | AP) Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Blake Anderson heard the question and had to smile.

A veteran sportscaster had just asked the Utah State football coach about some optimism he’d expressed at the start of his first season in Logan.

“A lot of us maybe didn’t expect that,” the man said.

“Wait, wait,” Anderson said, interrupting him and laughing. “Take that ‘maybe’ out of there.”

Fair enough.

A year ago, the Aggies were in disarray. Head coach Gary Andersen left after an 0-3 start and things never got much better on the way to a 1-5 record. USU hired Anderson from Arkansas State and most assumed a rebuild was underway in Cache Valley this fall.

Nine wins later, Anderson and the Aggies will take on San Diego State for a chance at the school’s first Mountain West Conference title on Saturday.

“I’m not sure anybody expected us to be here,” Anderson said. “But our guys are excited and so am I.”

Boise State, Wyoming, Air Force, and even Colorado State were all picked ahead of the Aggies in the Mountain West’s preseason poll. Anderson expected his team to surprise some people this year. But even he wasn’t thinking about a trip to the title game.

“Before the season started, a lot of people had questions — even guys in the locker room,” said USU quarterback Logan Bonner. “New staff, new philosophy. There were a lot of questions you can’t answer until you play the season.”

Bonner and the Aggies answered a lot of questions this year.

The transfer who followed Anderson from Arkansas State tied the USU single-season record with 32 touchdown passes, along with 3,236 passing yards. Wide receiver Deven Thompkins led the nation with 1,534 yards receiving. And the Aggies went a perfect 6-0 on the road in Anderson’s first year.

“I think we have a lot of momentum right now,” Bonner said.

Now they’ll try to answer one more question Saturday.

“We don’t want to be satisfied with being there. We want to find a way to win,” Anderson said. “These opportunities are rare. After what everybody went through last year, we feel very fortunate to be in this game. We want to maximize every ounce of it and find a way to win this game.”

Mountain West Conference championship

Records: Utah State (9-3, 6-2 Mountain West) at No. 19 San Diego State (11-1, 7-1, No. 19 CFP)

Kickoff: Saturday at 1 p.m. in Carson, Calif.

TV: FOX

Series record: San Diego State leads 13-2.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The Mountain Division champion Aggies and the West Division champion Aztecs are playing for the Mountain West Conference championship and a berth in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl at $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Dec. 18. The Aztecs have won 11 of the last 12 meetings, including 38-7 in Logan in 2020. SDSU is trying for its first MWC championship since winning consecutive titles in 2015-16. Utah State lost to Fresno State in its only championship game appearance, in 2013.

KEY MATCHUP

San Diego State punter/placekicker Matt Araiza against USU special teams. The junior from San Diego with the powerful left leg remains the Aztecs’ most potent threat after repeatedly forcing opponents into bad field position with booming punts. Araiza, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, leads the FBS in punt average at 51.5 yards and is on pace to break the FBS record of 50.98. He has an NCAA-record 38 punts that have traveled at least 50 yards, an NCAA-record 18 punts that have gone 60 yards and 36 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Utah State: Junior QB Logan Bonner tied the school record with five touchdown passes in a 35-10 win against New Mexico. He threw for 306 yards in that game, giving him 3,236 yards and 32 TDs this season, against 10 interceptions.

San Diego State: Senior QB Jordon Brookshire is expected to start after coming off the bench late in the first half to help rally the Aztecs to 24 straight points in a 27-16 win against Boise State last Friday. Brookshire passed for 192 yards and a touchdown after Lucas Johnson went out with a knee injury.

FACTS & FIGURES

This will be the final game for SDSU at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, the 27,000-seat home of the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS. The Aztecs have played in Carson for two seasons as Aztec Stadium rises in San Diego’s Mission Valley. ... After playing most of their games late at night, and then hosting Boise State at 9 a.m. PST last week, the Aztecs get a much more traditional kickoff time. ... The Aztecs are 9-2 in Carson, including 6-1 this year. ... Utah State is 6-0 on the road for the first time in school history. Utah State is 5-63 all-time against teams ranked in The Associated Press poll, but has won four of its last 13 meetings against Top 25 teams.

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