Going into the weekend, the Aggies had just one thing on their mind. Beat Hawai’i. They did that, and now under first-year head coach Blake Anderson, they’re doing what many before the season thought was impossible.
They’re going bowling.
After a 51-31 win at home on Saturday afternoon, the Aggies reached the six-win mark, meaning they are headed for the postseason.
For a lot of schools – and even a few years ago for USU – reaching the postseason in college football isn’t even a big deal or celebrated much anymore. Needing to just be .500 in a 12-game season and the oversaturation of bowl games (there are 42 of them nowadays) doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment. A lot of times, it really isn’t. But this is for the Aggies.
Go back a few years ago, when the 2018 Aggies were rolling to an 11-2 record and a national Top 25 ranking, the 11 wins tied a single-season program record. They were co-champions of the Mountain West Mountain Division. They went to the New Mexico Bowl and won easily against North Texas. Quarterback Jordan Love was one of the top passers in college football. Then head coach Matt Wells left for what he thought were greener pastures at Texas Tech (he was recently fired this season).
No matter, though right? The Aggies had Love and brought back coach Gary Andersen, the man credited with building the program from the ground up when he took over the first time in 2009 and led the 2012 team to an 11-2 record, bowl win, and conference title.
Instead, Utah State digressed more than seemed possible. Love struggled (although still a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft) while the Aggies dropped to 7-5. Still bowl eligible at least, but then were embarrassed in the Frisco Bowl by Kent State.
The Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly left a mark on the 2020 season. But any team in the country could make that excuse. The Aggies trotted out the worst team we’ve seen since 2016 when they were 3-9.
The 2020 team went 1-5. They statistically had one of the worst offenses in the country. Andersen was fired after three games. Quarterback Jason Shelley was dismissed from the team during the season. The Aggies even boycotted playing their final game, after the school president made discriminatory remarks about interim coach Frank Maile and his chances of being named the full-time head coach.
In other words, 2020 was, to put it nicely, an unmitigated disaster. Knowing that 2021 would be full of changes – with a new coach and starting quarterback in tow – made little difference to fans and observers on the outside. Utah State was picked to finish fifth (of six) in the Mountain Division by the conference media. ESPN’s S+P preseason rankings had the Aggies finishing 4-8. Losses seemed to be piling up before the season even started after looking at the schedule. Road games against Pac-12 Washington State and Air Force and home matchups against BYU and perennial Mountain Division winner Boise State were four of the team’s first five games.
Instead, the team has defied all odds. They upset Washington State, its first road win over a Power 5 program in 50 years. They came from behind to beat Air Force and the triple option. Even after losses to Boise State and BYU, the Aggies responded by winning three in a row.
Everything finally came together against Hawai’i. After going down to the wire in four of their five wins, the Aggies put on a show.
They scored a season-high 51 points, winning the game by 20. Quarterback Logan Bonner had a breakout performance, throwing for 360 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Elelyon Noah ran for 111 yards and a touchdown. NFL prospect Deven Thompkins racked up 176 yards receiving, while four different Aggies caught touchdown passes. Brandon Bowling returned an onside kick for a score. The defense forced three turnovers. Kicker Connor Coles was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goal tries.
While the team is still growing and some mistakes were made, it was by far the most complete game the Aggies have put together this year. It just so happened to be with a bowl game berth on the line, and they delivered.
After all that happened last season, this year’s Aggies have responded in a truly impressive fashion, but they aren’t done yet. A bowl game is a great start, but there remain even higher goals. With a 4-1 conference record, they sit atop the Mountain Division with three conference games remaining (one non-conference as well) and are the favorite in all of them.
Win out, and a division title and 10-win season will have been accomplished. A shot at a conference title against the winner of the West Division would be next, and a bowl game would follow.
So while this year’s team has already overachieved by being eligible for the postseason, they could end up being one of the best in the program’s history. With four games to go and everything to play for, the Aggies are out to prove they are here to make history.