Utah State looks to finish turnaround season strong in inaugural LA Bowl

The Aggies and Oregon State Beavers kick off at 5:30 p.m. MT on ABC.

(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.

Inglewood, Calif. • Utah State Defensive Coordinator Ephraim Banda’s first impressions of 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium — where the Aggies will play Oregon State on Saturday in the inaugural Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl — were that it was both “overwhelming” and “beautiful.”

Then, he pointed out that Utah State would be an answer to a trivia question decades from now about which teams played in the first college football game ever at SoFi.

“I’ll have the answer for it,” Banda said.

Utah State has had a lot of answers this year.

But there are still questions that remain.

Head coach Blake Anderson engineered a nine-game improvement from 2020 in his first season at the helm, tied for the second-best turnaround in the nation. The Aggies went 7-0 on the road, which included claiming their first-ever Mountain West title at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson against San Diego State earlier this month. They were just the fourth team ever to go from one or zero wins to 10 wins the next season.

Anderson’s first season in Logan, however, has not been without issue. On Friday, the coach acknowledged that he had told his players earlier this season that it “has never been more glamorized to be a victim” of sexual assault. Anderson apologized for his words after a recording of the remarks became public this week.

“I regret the words I used, and I apologize to anyone who has bravely come forward with allegations of wrongdoing,” Anderson said in a comment released by the school.

It remains to be seen what might else come from those remarks, as USU officials promised Friday to work to address important sexual assault “issues in our campus community and will provide more information on steps taken in the future.”

On the field, there is the question of how the Aggies will finish out their championship season.

“We’re still the underdog in this game,” quarterback Logan Bonner said. “Even coming off a championship. We love the fact that nobody respects us. Nobody respected us at the beginning of the year. We’ve just been leaning on ourselves, knowing that we can really play with people — and they’re just going to have to come out and play the game and find out for themselves.”

Utah State has been paced all year by its transfers. Anderson brought in 16 four-year transfers in 2021, including Bonner, wide receiver Brandon Bowling and running back Calvin Tyler Jr.

All 16 have played this season.

“Every single transfer that we brought in has stepped in and made an impact in some way,” Anderson said.

Bonner set a school record with 36 passing touchdowns this season and needs eight passing yards away from breaking the school record for passing yards in a season. Bowling had a career-high 154 yards on eight receptions in the Mountain West title game. Both followed Anderson to Utah State from Arkansas State.

Defensive end Nick Heniger, who transferred from Utah in 2019, said that the mindset of a transfer player includes hunger, drive and willingness to adapt to a new situation. The team bonded over the summer on a trip to Idaho, where they went camping and floated around in a river.

“I think that really helped when it comes to having transfers — guys that have been here just mesh and grow closer as a team,” Heniger said. “We didn’t get that opportunity last year with 2020 and COVID.”

For wide receiver Deven Thompkins, who set a program record with 1,589 receiving yards and tied a record with six consecutive 100-yard receiving games, getting to know Bonner away from football only strengthened their chemistry between the lines.

On the other side of the ball, Utah State will attempt to slow down Oregon State’s potent offense.

The Beavers finished first in the Pac-12 with 6.4 yards per play. They had two players named to the All-Pac-12 Conference team in running back B.J. Baylor — who led the conference in rushing yards per game — and offensive lineman Nathan Eldridge. Quarterback Chance Nolan passed for 2,414 yards and 19 touchdowns, third amongst Pac-12 quarterbacks.

Oregon State was selected for its first bowl game in eight years, also the last time it had a winning record. In his fourth year, head coach Jonathan Smith led the Beavers to a 6-0 home record and a third-place finish in the Pac-12 North.

Beyond the experience of playing in Los Angeles’ shiny new stadium, Utah State spent some time exploring the city this week. The Aggies were featured on Jimmy Kimmel’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on Wednesday and visited Universal Studios Hollywood on Thursday.

On Kimmel’s show, a few players introduced themselves to Kimmel’s audience similar to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” introductions — with an added punch line. Wide receiver Derek Wright quipped that he had “no idea what an Aggie is. No one does.”

Kimmel then joked that Utah State would get to meet Sen. Mitt Romney if they won.

Anderson, meanwhile, expects the Aggies to be ready for kickoff, which is at 5:30 p.m. MT and can be seen on ABC.

“If our team really wants to win this game badly enough, then we’ll go out and play with an effort level, and energy level that creates an opportunity for us to do that,” Anderson said. “If they’re satisfied at this point, then it doesn’t matter what I say or do. It’s going to come from them.”

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