Utah State’s head coach, Blake Anderson, said it best: “We played our best ball when we had to have it.”
The Aggies put together arguably their best game of the season against one of their toughest opponents in the biggest game of the year. The 46-13 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game completes a remarkable worst-to-first campaign.
The title will send the Aggies back to Los Angeles later this month to take on the Oregon State Beavers in the first Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. That game is scheduled for Dec. 18 at SoFi Stadium.
Here are five observations on Utah State winning its first-ever Mountain West championship.
1. Nobody believed but “the guys in the room.”
All year Utah State’s athletes and coaches played with the knowledge that nobody thought they would be any good. Las Vegas sportsbooks told them they’d win three games. Preseason voters said they’d finish at the bottom of their division again.
“We’ve felt disrespected this whole year,” quarterback Logan Bonner said. “And we definitely felt disrespected coming into this week.”
Even though Utah State finished with the second-best record in the conference and won the Mountain Division, few seemed to believe USU deserved to be there.
“The only people that really, truly believed we could do this were the guys in the room,” Anderson said. “All the conversation, all the chatter was just really about San Diego State. Think we used that just to fuel our week of prep.”
The chip of the Aggies’ collective shoulder grew with each slight, perceived or otherwise. The recent reveal of the All-Mountain West teams and season awards provided quite a bit of bulletin-board material. For one, just a single Aggie defender made one of the all-conference teams, and no one on the defensive line. It didn’t sit well with the guys in the front seven.
“When we seen the [all-conference teams] and we seen nobody on our D-line, it definitely put a fire underneath our butts,” defensive end Byron Vaughns said. “We wanted to prove today who the best D-line in the conference was.”
For another, Anderson didn’t win Coach of the Year despite taking a formerly 1-5 USU team to the championship game.
“We believe that he’s the Mountain West Coach of the Year,” Bonner said. “Without a doubt.”
2. Aggies stop the running team from running (and from scoring)
When Utah State faced the top two rushing teams in the conference, Air Force and Wyoming, the Aggies allowed 800 yards in just those two outings. San Diego State were the third-best rushing team in the Mountain West but did not do nearly so well in the ground game.
The Aztecs only had 148 net rushing yards which, though already well below their average of 177.8, is generous to note considering 81 of those came after Utah State went up by three touchdowns. That means the run-reliant San Diego State team had just 67 rushing yards in the three quarters where the game was being decided.
“We knew coming in that this team loved to run the ball,” Vaughns said. “So this week we emphasized stopping the run in practice, stopping the stretch, stopping the dive and stopping the quarterback from running because a dual-threat quarterback is one of the most dangerous things in college football.”
Though San Diego State was not a prolific scoring team in conference play (just 185 points in MW play, ranking ninth in the conference), holding the Aztecs to a season-low 13 points is an accomplishment.
“Everybody got involved. The effort was relentless the entire day,” Anderson said. “I think that’s the best effort we’ve had collectively since the San Jose State game.”
3. Lighting up a stingy defense
San Diego State finished best in the Mountain West and ninth in the nation in allowing just 17.3 points per game this year. And yet, Utah State wasn’t far off from tripling that number with its 46 points. It’s the most points scored against San Diego State since 2016 and also the most scored by any team in the Mountain West title game.
Logan Bonner led the charge offensively, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns. His biggest target of the night, Brandon Bowling, caught eight passes for 154 yards and added two touchdown catches, the latter setting a Mountain West title game record. Utah State gained 92 yards on the ground, the fourth-highest total against the Aztecs this season.
4. Net positive on special teams
There wasn’t a whole lot of great special teams played on Saturday. Utah State missed two field goals and had a PAT blocked. But those plays were peanuts compared to San Diego State’s miscues.
The smallest of SDSU’s three mistakes was a partially blocked punt that resulted in a 27-yard punt for Matt Araiza who averaged 51.5 yards per punt this season. Later, the Ray Guy finalist punter kicked his punt off the backside of one of his own blockers. The ball bounced behind Araiza and out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
The final mistake by the Aztecs just about put the nail in their own coffin. Utah State led 23-6 and was punting when SDSU returner Jaden Smith muffed Stephen Kotsanlee’s kick, and the Aggies recovered. Six plays later and USU held a commanding 29-6 lead with just under 17 minutes left in the game.
5. Logan Bonner: leader, warrior, record-setter
Utah State’s signal-caller had to win his job early in the season, battling Andrew Peasley for the right to quarterback the Aggies. Not only did Bonner win that battle, but he also won the hearts of his teammates. He played through countless minor injuries, his pain visible in HD to fans watching Bonner peel himself off the turf following big hit after big hit.
“The guy just keeps getting up,” Anderson said. “When you watch a guy sacrifice his body like he does. He’s duct-taped together right now. Every part of him is black and blue. They’ve seen him play when his entire thigh was dark purple and twice the size of the other one. They’ve seen his elbow swollen. He just comes to work every day and has earned the respect of the team.”
Bonner’s rewards for his toughness form a long list. Firstly, the knowledge that he led the first Mountain West-winning Utah State team. But alongside that, he’ll own plenty of records and honors by the end of the year. Bonner earned the Offensive Player of the Game award for his efforts and set two records during the game. First, the USU single-season passing touchdowns record and then Mountain West championship game record for most TD passes thrown. Bonner is also now a mere 14 yards from breaking the USU single-season passing yards record.