Utah State blown out by Memphis in First Responder Bowl, as Aggies begin to search for answers

The Aggies finished a disappointing season 6-7 after losing by four scores in Dallas.

Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (4) runs with the ball as Memphis linebacker Geoffrey Cantin-Arku (9) defends during the first half of the First Responders Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

University Park, Texas • Cooper Legas reeled and squirmed at the 30-yard line. His leg had just been caught up in a pile of players and his knee twisted to the ground. It would be a slow process to limp back to the sidelines.

And by the time the Utah State quarterback did wander into the medical tent several minutes later, flanked by two assistants early in the third quarter, the Aggie sideline was lifeless, the energy evaporated.

USU’s season would soon be gone, too.

The Aggies limped into the Dallas dusk, and into the offseason, with a 38-10 loss to Memphis in the First Responder Bowl on Tuesday evening.

A 6-7 season ended in disappointing fashion and now gives way to an offseason filled with newfound questions.

“There was no consistency,” head coach Blake Anderson said. “We have find some. It has been a frustrating year offensively. When you consider what we were able to do a year ago to this year it is a night and day difference. We have to be better if we are going to compete the way we want to.”

Utah State came into 2022 coming off its best season in years. Anderson won 11 games in 2021 and infused new energy into a program that went 1-5 the year before and 7-6 in 2019.

With a returning quarterback and an offense that averaged nearly 450 yards per game in 2021, the hope was this team would again contend for a Mountain West title.

But things went off the rails quickly. Utah State was blown out by Alabama and then lost to FCS school Weber State 35-7. By the time they looked up at the end of September, the Aggies were 1-4 and in a struggle just to make a bowl game.

Eventually, things reached an equilibrium, with the team winning five-of-seven down the stretch to get bowl eligible. But things never looked quite how they were supposed to.

The once-potent offense averaged almost 100 fewer yards per game. The same defense that was much-maligned in 2021 had to carry the team for certain stretches. It wasn’t necessarily that the defense had gotten significantly better — it allowed 396 yards per game, up three yards from 2021 — but that the offense couldn’t get out of its own way.

It ended in a bowl game loss where Utah State simply looked overmatched. USU turned the ball over three times, allowed 430 yards and was down 24-3 at the half. Outside of a 44-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Utah State averaged fewer than 4 yards per play. The closest it got was within two scores in the second half.

“To battle from 1-4 to 6-6 takes a lot of grit,” Anderson said of the state of this program. “Could have easily thrown in the towel. I felt like even if we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, you could tell in the middle of the season there is some fight in this group. We have a lot of improvements needed in the offseason.”

So where does that begin now?

Well, to Anderson, it starts with development and opening position battles that haven’t seen the light of day for a while now. Despite finishing the year as the team’s starting quarterback, Legas will fight for his job this offseason.

“That is a room that is going to be critical for us to improve that,” Anderson said. “We have to stop turning the ball over there. ... We have three guys on the roster already there and we got [Skyridge quarterback] McCae Hillstead coming in.”

And then everyone else will be considered. Utah State had 27 main contributors rotate in and out this year because of injuries. Many younger players got on the field, including on the defense, and it needs to look better in 2023.

“They weren’t fun to watch at times,” Anderson said. “But hopefully those reps will pay dividends a year from now.”

Even Anderson struggled in the moment to fully wrap his head around everything that needs to change. Running back Calvin Tyler Jr., who is leaving the program, insisted on his way out that everything was going be work out for the Aggies. He said this year, “happened as it was supposed to.”

As he thought about it Tuesday, Anderson eventually arrived at that conclusion too. But that acceptance will not be without more soul-searching than most expected this offseason.

“I think this team can be exactly where they want to be, but we have to attack it in some key areas,” he finished. “We can play better ball than we did. I’m encouraged by that but I also know we have a big challenge ahead of us.”