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Led by backup quarterback Cooper Legas, Utah State caps turnaround season with LA Bowl win

The Aggies end the season on a high note with a 24-13 bowl win over Oregon State

(Ashley Landis | AP) Oregon State defensive back Akili Arnold (0) catches an interception in the end zone during the first half of the LA Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah State in Inglewood, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. The pass was intended for Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins, left.

Inglewood, Calif. • All month long, Utah State has talked about being disrespected and treated as underdogs — even after winning the Mountain West championship and earning a trip to the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.

Perhaps after a 24-13 win over Oregon State in the first-ever college football game at SoFi Stadium on Saturday, the Aggies capped off a surprising turnaround season by earning some respect.

“Look at us now,” defensive end Nick Heiniger said. “I don’t think we’re underdogs now.”

Led by backup quarterback Cooper Legas — who entered the game in the second quarter after a knee injury to starter Logan Bonner — Utah State finished the season tied for a school record with 11 wins and two wins over Power 5 opponents.

Legas, a sophomore who entered the day without a pass attempt in his career, came into the game and immediately changed that. Legas was knocked down, but not before releasing a 62-yard strike to Deven Thompkins for a touchdown. Thompkins streaked past Oregon State’s Jaydon Grant down the left sideline and then coasted into the end zone to tie the game at 7-7.

Legas completed 11-of-20 passes for 171 yards, making a strong case to potentially compete for the starting job next season. Thompkins finished with six catches for 115 yards and set the single-season school record with 101 receptions.

Thompkins said that he pulled Legas aside on the sideline and told him: “It’s your time to step up.”

“He was ready to go,” Thompkins said of Legas. “It showed the future that he’s going to have here as a Utah State Aggie.”

Legas’ second touchdown pass went to Brandon Bowling late in the third quarter, finding the open wide receiver on a 5-yard strike to expand the Utah State lead to 24-10.

“It does not surprise me that Cooper played as well as he did,” Heninger said. “I’ve seen the work he puts in on and off the field. There are a lot of guys on our team that are just waiting for their opportunity.”

Oregon State scored less than a minute into the game on a 20-yard run by Jesiah Irish, capping off a quick three-play, 71-yard opening drive.

But the Aggies soon took control of the game, clamping down on a potent Oregon State offense. In the fourth quarter, the Utah State defense — led by Heninger, who had a career-high three sacks and five tackles for loss — forced a fumble, an interception and a turnover on downs to maintain a double-digit lead.

Utah State took a 14-7 lead into halftime on a 15-yard rushing touchdown by Calvin Tyler Jr.

Head coach Blake Anderson said postgame that the LA Bowl win should solidify Utah State as a top-25 program. The Aggies entered the week with the most votes of any team outside the top 25.

“There’s no way we shouldn’t finish in the top 25, with an 11-3 record and two Power 5 wins and a conference title,” Anderson said. “To me, that is finishing that last sentence of this group’s legacy. That is beyond gratifying for them to really acknowledge the work and sacrifice and the selfless nature this group has shown all season long.”

Anderson, however, entered the LA Bowl under criticism after apologizing Friday for an audio recording that surfaced from fall camp in which he told his players that “it has never been more glamorized to be the victim” of sexual assault. Anderson called his choice of words “hurtful” and apologized to “anyone who has bravely come forward with allegations of wrongdoing.”

Seated next to Anderson at the postgame podium, Heninger defended his coach.

“I just don’t know if everybody knows how special of a coach we do have here,” Heninger said. “There’s a lot of stuff going around right now. This is the real man. This is the guy we know. Don’t let all the noise distract you from what his real character is. I just love him.”

The Mountain West ends the season 6-5 against the Pac-12 and improves to 13-13 all-time against the Pac-12 in bowl games. Utah State also beat Washington State 26-23 in September in Pullman.

The LA Bowl the first college football game played at SoFi Stadium and the first bowl to be named after a living figure.

Kimmel, who welcomed both teams to a taping of his show during the week, made several cameos on the field. He attempted to play the clarinet with the Oregon State band, then was joined by his sidekick, Guillermo, and the game’s mascot, “Jimmy Kammel” on the field.

The urinals in the men’s bathrooms at SoFi Stadium had Matt Damon’s face on them, a nod to Kimmel’s long-running feud with the movie star.

Heninger — who along with Thompkins played in his final collegiate game Saturday — said playing at SoFi Stadium was both an “honor and a blessing.” The bowl game’s respective offensive and defensive MVPs each carried with them the prize — a large belt.

Thompkins said his belt was going to his mom’s house. Heninger wondered if the airport security would let him through with it. Both were enamored by the experience of playing at the home of the Super Bowl next week.

“It’s one of the biggest stages, one of the nicest stages in the world,” Heninger said. “Hopefully it’s not our last time playing here. That’s the goal, right?”

Thompkins called the atmosphere “crazy.”

“I have never seen a stadium like this,” Thompkins said. “It just gives you a little taste of what things could be, what it could actually feel like to play in a stadium like this. being the first college team to actually play in the stadium — we set the bar high.”

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