LAS VEGAS—It took a handful of late defensive stops and a last-minute touchdown drive, but Utah State football overcame missed opportunities to leave Allegiant Stadium with a 28-24 win over UNLV Saturday evening.
The Aggies improved to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play. The Rebels remain winless at 0-6 overall and 0-2 in conference.
USU head coach Blake Anderson said he was worried going into the game. He saw past the 0-5 record and said UNLV was more than capable of winning, especially if his guys didn’t play their best football.
“There were a lot of things we did not do well,” he said. “At the end of the day, the guys were resilient and continued to battle, which they’ve done all year. We found a way to make big plays down the stretch when we absolutely had to.”
Those big plays included defensive stops, a fourth-down conversion and breaking big runs when the running game had been struggling earlier on. The late game heroics are nothing new for this Aggie team. In each victory this year, USU has trailed by at least 10 points. Aggie safety Shaq Bond, who finished with two interceptions, said he knows Utah State isn’t the biggest or fastest team, but believes that his teammates can “outwork everyone,” and that it gives USU a conditioning advantage late in games.
“We can run for days,” he said. “You might see us huff and puff, but I kid you not, our legs are fresh, even in the third and fourth quarter.”
Aggie quarterback Logan Bonner completed 21 of 32 passes for 285 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the victory. Wide receiver Deven Thompkins caught 12 of those passes for 180 yards and both of the touchdowns.
Having a player put up those kinds of numbers is a dream for any head coach, but Anderson said Thompkins’ biggest impact is his work ethic.
“When your best player is the hardest worker in the room, everybody gets better,” he said. “That dude outworks everybody on the field everyday, and has elevated the room.”
For the Rebels it was Charles Williams doing most of the damage. The senior running back averaged 8.2 yards per carry, picking up 221 yards and three touchdowns.
“He is physical,” Anderson said. “He ran through arm tackles the entire game. I thought his patience and vision was really, really good.”
Bond said there were no halftime adjustments from the coaches. They were only told “to get (Williams) on the ground.”
“Tonight, I went up to (Williams),” Bond said. “I was like, ‘Man, you run hard, boy. It was better than what I’d seen on film.’”
Going into the game, Aggie wide receiver Savon Scarver had six kick career returns for touchdowns, but hadn’t had one in all of this season or last. Getting a seventh would tie him for most in NCAA history. Scarver said he had become frustrated that he wasn’t getting the chance to return any kicks, mostly because opponents were not kicking the ball to him, but thought this week would be his chance. He said he noticed in film that UNLV’s kicker had a tendency of only kicking it to the goal line. His opportunity came, and he took advantage of it. Scarver went end zone to end zone early in the first quarter, and is now tied for the record.
“That dude is electric,” Anderson said. “He was hyped-up and ready to go. He did exactly what he needed to do and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
What made it more special for Scarver was having it happen in his hometown of Las Vegas.
“I had friends and family here from all over,” he said. “Just to come home and get the record tied, it means a lot to me.”
The Aggie defense had little answer for Williams and the UNLV offense early on. The Rebels picked up a 26-yard field goal during its opening drive and followed it up with back-to-back Williams touchdown runs on the subsequent possessions.
It was big plays that put Utah State on the board in the first half. The first touchdown came on Scarver’s record breaking kick return. The second came courtesy of Thompkins, who brought in Bonner’s 37-yard pass in the end zone. There was potential for more points in the first half, but missed opportunities held the Aggie offense back. USU was 0-2 in the red zone before the break, including a drive that ended at the 1-yard line. Penalties, an interception and a missed 52-yard field goal sent USU into halftime trailing 17-14.
Utah State took its first lead on the second half’s opening drive, moving the ball 45 yards in five plays and finishing with Thomkins’ second end zone catch. UNLV fired right back, once again using Williams in a running attack USU had little answer for. Williams’ third touchdown put UNLV up 24-21 midway through the third.
USU had a chance to tie the game with 12:32 left in the game, but Connor Coles’ field goal was off-target. Then with just 5:16 left, Coles’ 41-yard attempt was blocked. The Aggie defense held on, keeping UNLV’s lead to just three and the win within striking distance.
“There’s going to be times when the defense is struggling and the offense has got to pick them up,” Anderson said. “We saw that earlier in the year. The thing I told them in the locker room is that there will be times when we don’t make good plays, but continue to pull for each other…We are seeing that play out.”
USU’s defense gave Bonner and the offense one more opportunity, forcing a punt with less than three minutes left. It took nine plays, a fourth-down conversion and just more than two minutes, but Elelyon Noa finished the 60-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run with 2:46 left in the game. UNLV was unable to strike back.
Utah State will return home to face Colorado State Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The Rams are 3-3 overall, but at 2-0 in conference are at the top of the Mountain Division standings.