The top 5 plays from USU football in 2018 by players returning in 2019

Utah State's quarterback Jordan Love sets up for a play at the Utah State University Football game verses Brigham Young University on Friday, October 5, at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. Utah State won the game 45 to 20. (Megan Nielsen)

LOGAN – On the eve of fall camp for Utah State football, let’s look back one last time on the season that was 2018. It’s been nearly nine months since we saw USU on the football field and, in that time, we might’ve forgotten just how dominant the Aggies were last season. USU finished second in the nation in points per game, tied for first in turnovers forced, first overall (by a healthy margin) in average kickoff returns, and third in defensive touchdowns. In every phase of the game, the Aggies were not only effective, but extremely explosive. In filtering through an entire season to pick out a mere five plays as the best of the season, a case could be made for vastly larger array than what will be shown here. The Aggies were simply too explosive, too effective, too damn good last season to come to anything approaching a consensus top-five plays from 2018.

But what about the top-five plays from 2018 featuring players returning in 2019? A large pool of potential plays remains, but removing the now-departed stalwarts of last season allows us to focus our search and (hopefully) find the few plays that both summarize 2018 and gives us hope for 2019. Sadly, however, that means we already have to discard Darwin Thompsons’s 65-yard scamper versus Tennessee Tech, Aaren Vaughn’s game-winning touchdown at Colorado State, Gaje Ferguson’s pick-six at Michigan State, Jontrell Rocquemore’s forced-fumble-and-recovery at BYU, and basically any time DJ Nelson was on the field. Sacrifices had to be made.

Okay, fine, here’s at least Thompson’s run at Hawaii featuring approximately 37 broken tackles.

With that stipulation in my mind, though, here are the (far from definitive) top plays from Utah State football in 2018 featuring players returning in 2019.

 

  1. DJ Williams diving interception versus Hawaii

By this point, Utah State was already 7-1 and had firmly entrenched themselves as one of the premier teams in the Mountain West. The opening half versus Hawaii did little to alter that thinking. Up 28-3 with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter, the game was all but over, but a feisty Rainbow Warriors team had ideas of putting up points heading into the half to jumpstart a possible comeback. At USU’s 37-yardline, Hawaii’s Cole McDonald pressed for that opportunity, lofting a ball deep down the right sideline for JoJo Ward. With DJ Williams blanketing Ward in coverage, and with the now-departed Aaron Wade providing safety help, the throw had little chance of resulting in a completion. Williams took it a step further on the play, seemingly switching from defender to receiver, tracking the ball through the air and contorting his body for a spectacular diving interception that gave the ball back to USU’s offense to close out the half and shut down Hawaii’s scoring chance.

After earning NJCAA first-team All-America honors at Independence (Kansas) Community College, Williams was an unknown commodity heading into the 2018 season, but ultimately stepped up to become the team’s number one cornerback. After tallying 15 pass break-ups, including a MW-leading four interceptions, Williams won’t be surprising anyone in 2019. Given preseason first-team All-Mountain West honors by several publications, Williams will be relied on as a defensive anchor for the Aggies, and a game-planning headache for opponents.

 

  1. Gerold Bright’s game-sealing touchdown versus Air Force

When your average scoring margin for a season is +22.3 points per game, it can be hard to remember that some games were actually a mere play or two from flipping from a victory to a defeat. The MW-opener versus Air Force fits this description. While the Aggies answered a 14-7 deficit with 28 straight points to go up 35-14 midway through the third quarter, several key plays from the Falcons had trimmed that lead to only 35-32 early in the fourth quarter. Air Force had even driven the ball into USU territory before being forced to punt, and with seven minutes remaining, Gerold Bright took the ball from Jordan Love with an opportunity to virtually ice the victory.

Exceptional blocking up front and zero hesitation from Bright in bursting through the opening for an untouched 70-yard scamper helped push the Aggies to 3-1 on the year and on the fast track to bowl eligibility.

Splitting time with Thompson, Bright still managed over 1,100 yards from scrimmage with a 6.9 yards per touch average. Coming into 2019 with a far less proven backfield, Bright could have the opportunity to blow well past his 2018 marks.

 

  1. Shaq Bond’s 100-yard interception return versus New Mexico

Utah State won seven of their 13 games in 2018 by more than 30 points, but those lopsided margins were not only the result of a hyper-powered offense. The Aggie defense more than carried their own weight, forcing 32 turnovers on the year and returning six for scores. And when the defense created one of those game-changing plays, the floodgates opened. Case in point, USU was only up 7-3 in the first quarter over New Mexico and the Lobos were threatening to retake the lead. Facing Second-and-7 at USU’s 10-yard line, Sheriron Jones rolled left and attempted to find Elijah Lilly in the short corner of the end zone, only to have Shaq Bond undercut the throw and ride an entourage of Aggies to a 100-yard interception return touchdown. The play put USU up 14-3 during a steamrolling run of 49 unanswered points for the Aggies.

Bond played in only eight games for the Aggies before injury derailed his season, but in those eight games, Bond showcases his potential as part of the backline for the defense. Adding six pass deflections to his interception-turned-touchdown, plus 37 total tackles including three for a loss, and Bond cemented his position as a vital part of the secondary heading into 2019. With USU losing four of the top seven players from last season in total interceptions, Bond will be looked to in order to replace the lost defensive playmaking.

 

  1. Savon Scarver’s kickoff return touchdown at Wyoming

In the few games that Utah State’s offense sputtered and failed to provide the difference, Aggies in the other phases of the game stepped up to fill the void. Against Wyoming particularly, the Aggie offense struggled to a season-low 194 yards. Meanwhile, both USU’s defense and special teams stepped up steal the victory. Several key turnovers set the Aggies up with short fields, but after a Cowboy field goal trimmed USU’s lead to 17-6 in the third quarter, USU needed several more plays to ensure the win. Enter consensus All-American kick returner Savon Scarver.

With one kick return touchdown against New Mexico State already on his season resume, Scarver proceeded to add another with a 99-yard return TD to put the Aggies up 24-6. Wyoming would make things interesting late, but Scarver’s insurance touchdown ultimately proved to be too much of a deficit to overcome.

With seniors like Tarver, Vaughns, and Jalen Greene on the roster, Scarver’s role was largely limited to return specialist. Even so, Scarver displayed the ability to contribute in the passing game, like on this TD catch on a back-shoulder fade versus UNLV.

The Aggies lose their top five receivers from last year in total yardage, meaning Scarver will need to replicate plays like that on a consistent basis in 2019.

 

  1. Tipa Galeai’s pick-six at BYU

As if there was any other option for the top spot here. Tipa’s game-changing interception and return for a touchdown not only halted a BYU drive on fourth down in USU territory, it served as the launching point for the Aggies’ biggest victory over the Cougars since 1968. While BYU QB Tanner Mangum did have an open Brayden El-Bakri in the flat for a possible first down, Galeai decision to hold up on his rush attempt and block Mangum’s passing lane completely flipped the script of what had been a ho-hum first quarter to that point.

With momentum (and perhaps memories of USU forcing seven BYU turnovers in 2017 occupying the minds of Cougar players), the Aggies wouldn’t lose control of the game from then on, building leads of 21-0 and 35-7 before mercifully turning on cruise control.

While the high-flying offense of 2018 receivers (and certainly deserves) much of the credit for the Aggies’ 11-2 run, it’s the defense that really empowered the team to the dominant performances of the season. 2019 will be no different. With Jordan Love running the show on the offensive side of the ball, Utah State should still field an imposing offense. But it will be up to the defense to provide the same explosiveness for the Aggies to approach last season’s numbers. A fresh supply of turnovers, short fields for the offense, and a handful of non-offensive touchdowns, and USU will again appear near the top of the national rankings for offensive statistics. And Tipa Galeai, the co-leader of the defensive front-seven along with David Woodward, will be instrumental in doing so.

BONUS ROUND: Jordan Love

Speaking of Jordan Love, we’d be hard-pressed to hold hope for USU’s 2019 season were it not for the signal-caller lining up under center. Love certainly has plenty to prove in 2019. With a whole new coaching staff and supporting cast, Love is largely the only constant from last season’s offensive fireworks. Fair or not, whether the Aggies can replicate last season’s production is going to be largely blamed or credited to Love. That’s an immense amount of pressure to place on a college junior in his early 20s, even before adding Heisman hype and the possibility of an NFL career.

It’d be unfair to ask any player to live up to those standards.

Over two-thirds of his TD recipients from last year are gone.

He’ll have to adjust to a whole new system and offensive coordinator.

It’s a difficult situation and a difficult schedule.

It wouldn’t be a condemnation of Love’s talents if USU took a step backward offensively.

But saying all that…

All aboard the 10ve train.

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