LOGAN— Utah State scored on its first offensive play from scrimmage and returned a kickoff for a touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to deliver the Aggies their first victory of the season as they fell to 0-4 with a 35-16 Homecoming loss to Fresno State.
Playing their first game under interim coach Frank Maile, the Aggies showed more fire, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They forced their first turnover of the season on the Bulldog’s first possession when Shaq Bond intercepted Jake Haener inside the 5-yard line and returned it to the 14. USU then scored on the ensuing play when running back Jaylen Warren broke through the line for an 86-yard burst.
It was USU’s longest running play since Kerwynn Williams broke loose for an 86-yard score in 2012.
Fresno State (3-1) responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive capped off with a 9-yard scoring strike from Haener to Jalen Cropper. That duo connected early and often as Haener had a career-high in passing yards, 318, by halftime and Cropper hauled in eight first-half receptions for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Haener finished the game with 422 yards on 29-of-38 passing, while Cropper finished with 10 catches for 202 yards and three scores.
USU re-took the lead when kick return ace Savon Scarver made the sixth house-call of his career, a school record, with a 96-yard return at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. However, outside of a 38-yard Connor Coles field goal — his first as an Aggie — that would end the offensive fireworks for Utah State.
Following Scarver’s return, USU had a chance to add to its 13-7 lead, but Warren fumbled at the Bulldogs’ 15-yard line after a big gain on the ground and the Bulldogs recovered at their own 4-yard line. Four plays later, Haener found Cropper for the pair’s second TD of the half — this one a 59-yard strike — to put the Bulldogs back on top, 14-13.
“I thought we started the game super strong with special teams and the offense. One of the key things, the goals offensively, was to establish the run game. Second to that goal right there offensively was protect the football,” Maile said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do a good job with that. Two of those takeaways in the run game kind of switched the momentum in crucial moments of us trying to punch in another touchdown.”
Fresno State added a 71-yard touchdown reception by Josh Kelly and a 4-yard run by Ronnie Rivers to take a 28-16 advantage into the break.
In the second half, the defenses adjusted. The teams combined for 72 third-quarter yards, six punts, and a fumble in the period. After putting up about as much resistance as butter to a hot knife in the first half, the Aggie defense buckled down, forcing multiple three-and-outs. With the Bulldogs threatening late in the third quarter, AJ Vongpchachanh forced Fresno’s Erik Brooks to fumble and Jake Pitcher recovered for the Aggies.
“It just comes down to execution. We kind of lacked that a little bit in the first half. Basically, we (have) just got to come out from the jump,” Vongpchachanh said. “At the end of the day, the explosive plays are killing us and that’s what we need to fix.”
However, the season long struggles continued for USU QB Jason Shelley and the Aggie offense, who couldn’t do anything with the turnover. Shelley completed just 9-of-24 passes for 144 yards, was sacked six times, and badly underthrew open wide receivers all afternoon.
Even with those offensive struggles, the Aggies had a chance to get back in the game midway through the fourth quarter. Following a 38-yard completion from Shelley to Deven Thompkins, USU had the ball at the Bulldogs’ 29-yard line with a first down. On the ensuing play, though, Devonta’e Henry Cole fumbled as he was going to the ground and the Bulldogs recovered with 8:33 remaining.
That turnover proved to be the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Aggies as Cropper hauled in his third touchdown pass of the game a few plays later, a 44-yard strike, to put the game out of reach at 35-16.
The Aggies will not have long to dwell on Saturday’s lackluster performance as they have a quick turnaround to face Wyoming (1-2) on Thursday night on CBS Sports Network at 7 p.m. USU will look to avoid its first 0-5 start since 2007. That year the Aggies started 0-10 before winning their final two games of the season.
“There’s some stuff to build on moving forward,” Maile said. “It’s going to be a short week for us moving into Wyoming, but I think there’s positives there that we need to move forward and carry to continue to catapult us to where we need to be.”
Fresno State dominated the time of possession Saturday, holding the ball for 33:49 compared to just 26:11 for Utah State. The Bulldogs also held decisive advantages in first downs (25-12), total yards (541-343) and third down conversions (43 percent to 20 percent).
Warren carried the ball nine times for 136 yards, an average of 15 yards per carry. Outside of his 86-yard touchdown run, he averaged 6.25 yards per carry (8 carries for 50 yards). Despite being underthrown, Thompkins hauled in a pair of highlight catches. He finished with three receptions for 94 yards.
After giving up 394 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, the USU defense only allowed 147 yards and 1 touchdown in the final 30 minutes of action.
Wyoming had the week off as its game against Air Force was cancelled due to Coronavirus concerns.