It wasn’t easy, and things got a little too close-for-comfort at times, but the Aggies gutted it out.
Utah State held on for a 42-32 win at home over Air Force in their Mountain West Conference opener Saturday evening. The Aggies (3-1 overall, 1-0 MWC) held a 21-point lead in the third quarter, only to watch it shrink to a mere three points. Gerold Bright and the Aggie defense made some big plays late in the fourth quarter to seal the game, and the Aggies withstood the storm of Air Force’s triple option rushing attack.
With their backs against the wall, the Aggies were nursing a slim three-point lead with only seven minutes left in the game. USU’s Justus Te’i stepped up and made a huge tackle-for-loss on third-and-short, and Air Force (1-2, 0-1) punted the ball. On the very next play, Bright took a handoff and bounced off of a would-be tackler near the line of scrimmage. He hit the edge and turned on the jets, taking it 70 yards for a touchdown run to give the Aggies a 42-32 lead with 6:52 left.
“Seeing him break free was a really good feeling,” USU quarterback Jordan Love said.
After Bright’s TD dash, USU’s defense stepped up yet again. The Aggies stuffed Air Force on a quarterback sneak on 4th-and-inches at the USU 19-yard line with 2:05 left to seal the win.
It wasn’t pretty at times. The Aggies avoided tragedy after making things hard on themselves. A close first half ended with a 21-14 lead for the Aggies. Ron’quavion Tarver led the way with 112 yards receiving on eight catches in the first half – Tarver finished the night with nine catches for 128 yards. Love was 18 of 25 for 250 yards passing and a touchdown in the first half.
Utah State came out of the locker room and hung two straight touchdowns on the Falcons. Darwin Thompson capped an 11-play, 77-yard drive with a one-yard TD run to make it 28-14. Air Force fumbled the ball on their first play from scrimmage following the kickoff, as Christopher Unga punched the ball out and Gaje Ferguson scooped it up. The fumble recovery was Ferguson’s third turnover of the season, and the senior had a career-high and team-leading 15 tackles in the contest.
“Our defense battled very hard,” Ferguson said. “We haven’t beat Air Force since I’ve been here at Utah State. It seems like the defense is always on the field when you play Air Force, even when you play pretty good, because of the way that their offense controls the ball.”
On the Aggies next snap, Dax Raymond scored. He took a screen pass from Love and ran it 30 yards for six, to give USU a 35-14 lead halfway through the third quarter.
Then, things went south in a hurry.
Air Force drove into USU territory and settled for a field goal. The Aggies punted on the ensuing drive, and Air Force responded with a long touchdown drive and a two-point conversion. The Falcons kicked the ball off, and USU’s Savon Scarver fumbled after being stood up near the 20-yard line. The Falcons scooped the ball and scored. All of a sudden, it was a 35-32 game with 13:00 left.
Less than :20-seconds of gameplay resulted in 15 points for the Falcons, and tension mounted in Maverik Stadium.
That’s when Te’i and Bright stepped up.
“I saw a lot of resiliency tonight,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “Tonight was just okay, honestly, in a lot of ways. I thought we played excellent and we got in rhythms, and then we just bogged ourselves down on offense at times. To see them overcome that, that’s what I’m starting to learn about them. They care for each other, and we’ve got a lot of really great leaders.”
The Aggie offense did its job Saturday evening. Love threw for a career-high 356 yards. Utah State’s quick-paced attack amassed a total of 489 yards in only 16 minutes and 20 seconds. USU picked up 133 yards on the ground, and both Darwin Thompson and Bright had a pair of rushing touchdowns.
“We knew what we had to do – we were coming in to air the ball out,” Love said of his offense’s mentality.
Offensively, it’s already been a record-setting season for the Aggies. They’ve scored at least 30 points in their first four games of the season for the first time in school history.
Four games into the 2018 season, Utah State is 3-1 for the third time since 1978. Up next is a bye week, before USU heads to Provo to take on in-state rival BYU on Friday, Oct. 5th.
“It’s a one-game showdown,” Wells said of the BYU game. “It matters nothing in the Mountain West race. It’s for a Wagon Wheel, and that’s really important to that locker room. It’s one game for us, and it has no bearing on the season in terms of our goals for the Mountain West. Our guys have a tremendous amount of pride. They’ll be ready to play.”