What We Learned From Utah State's 48-24 Win Over North Dakota

What We Learned From Utah State's 48-24 Win Over North Dakota

Mountain West Football

What We Learned From Utah State's 48-24 Win Over North Dakota

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Aggies survive a concerning first quarter just to smack the Fighting Hawks, improve to 2-0


The last time an Aggie coach started 2-0, Babe Ruth still played for the Red Sox


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What We Learned From Utah State’s 48-24 Win Over North Dakota

North Dakota fans visiting fair Cache Valley to watch the Fighting Hawks use this season’s mad FCS underdog energy to take a shot at the Aggies were treated to a pretty magical first quarter of impressive offensive prowess — and that’s not nothing.

But despite diving into an unnecessary 21-7 deficit, Utah State ultimately handled its business at home outpacing North Dakota 41-3 over the final three quarters. It’s probably not the type of game you want to play against an FCS team you’re favored to beat, but it was still an absolute thrill to a storm-drenched crowd.

Here’s a look at how the 2021 Aggies managed to start 2-0 (and a brief glimpse at the tough road ahead).

The First Quarter

No one expected three straight North Dakota touchdown drives to start this game — except maybe the Fighting Hawks themselves, who looked wholly unintimidated by the Aggie defense. Perhaps it’s understandable to have a sluggish start following a 90-minute weather delay, but ND’s repeated use of pre-snap motion and general misdirection had the Aggies looking toothless through the first 15 minutes of play.

The lone first-quarter highlight for the home team came in response to ND’s opening scoring drive. Logan Bonner found fellow Arkansas State transfer Brandon Bowling on a nice 10-yard crossing route which they boldly elected to defend with zero help over the top, returning a little blood to USU’s extremities and tying the score 7-7 early.

The big play did nothing to shake North Dakota’s wild sense of confidence though, and ultimately the game’s opening act saw them boast a 21-7 lead — including 205 yards of offense and a trio of touchdown passes from three different players. It wasn’t great.

The Significantly Improved Second Quarter

It’s hard to discern the exact moment North Dakota’s bag-o’-tricks ran dry, but USU’s talented defensive line finally woke up in the second quarter and began rightly overpowering the Fighting Hawks’ OL. The Hawks also suffered some painful self-inflicted wounds here, punctuated by a man in motion tripping his own running back on a key third-down handoff. It was all at once a gift to the home team trying to find its footing and the sort of mistake you almost expect an underdog FCS team to make eventually.

The miscue gave USU the opening it needed to make up ground in a hurry, as Bonner and co. added a very professional 8-play, 82-yard touchdown drive to a pair of prior Connor Coles field goals to eliminate ND’s two-touchdown cushion by halftime.

There was some dismay among the ND faithful here as Derek Wright appeared to share possession of the TD catch with his defender — probably because the pass was thrown behind Wright directly to said defender — but the play would stand as an Aggie score and effectively take any remaining wind right out of the Hawks’ sails.

Determined not to just roll over and die before the half, QB Tommy Schuster actually led a decent drive in response before underthrowing a pass over the middle and falling victim to noted Aggie stud Justin Rice’s ball-hawking ability at midfield. North Dakota’s offense tallied just 12 plays in the second quarter over three drives — 5 plays-punt, 4 plays-punt, 3 plays-INT.

North Dakota’s Last Good Play

The second half saw Bonner start with the ball, handing it off to RB Cavin Tyler Jr. three times, then throwing that ball right to C.J. Siegel for an interception. North Dakota ran six plays for 17 yards before booting an easy field goal. It would prove to be their only points scored after the first quarter.

The Deven Thompkins Touchdown

Immediately following the ND kick, the Aggies dialed up a screen pass to Deven Thompkins on the west sideline. With 6’6” Justin McGriff erasing the only defender within shouting distance of the reception, Thompkins had to know this ball was getting housed the moment he turned upfield. The Aggies’ beloved short king proceeded to show every fan in attendance how to properly use the fast lane by bolting 75 yards to the end zone for six.

Thompkins’ go-ahead score allowed the Aggies to play more aggressively into the third quarter. RB Elelyon Noa kept the following drive alive with a nice 11-yard run on 4th and 2 deep in North Dakota territory. Though this particular 11-play drive would soon end in a failed 4th-and-2 on the ND 3-yard line, coach Blake Anderson held to the promising philosophy he established against Washington State — namely to trust his offense in 4th down situations, and not waste everyone’s time pretending to go for it before rolling out the punt unit.

Another Kickass Ending

Failing to punch in a score didn’t end up hurting the Aggies in this one, as USU would soon return to North Dakota’s goal line with just under 10 minutes remaining. Still leading the Hawks by a slim 27-24 margin, Anderson called on Calvin Tyler Jr. to drill his way through a crowd of green helmets for his first score of the night.

The score released any remaining tension in the building, best illustrated by coach Anderson’s “Damn, dude” sideline head shake as the big screen replayed Tyler’s extra-effort dagger.

Now fully in control, the Aggies’ next drive saw three straight Tyler runs straight up the innards of ND’s exhausted defensive line. Perhaps feeling bad for the beating Tyler was laying on the Hawks’ trenches, Bonner decided to loft his prettiest pass of the evening from near the 50 all the way to a streaking Derek Wright, who neatly plucked the ball out of the air just as he crossed the goal line.

The game’s closing minutes saw Justin Rice snap up another interception and obvious player of the week honors, and presumed backup QB Andrew Peasley absolutely refusing to be shelved entirely with a speedy 59-yard touchdown run to cap what turned out to be a fun night for the Aggie faithful.

Though delayed by weather and rocky at the start, this turned into a pretty good night for Utah State on both sides of the ball. The home team allowed just three points after the first quarter and held North Dakota’s rushing attack to just 2.7 yards per carry. The immediate road ahead might be treacherous, but a 2-0 start and a demonstrable ability to respond to pressure situations have this team prepared to do some major damage to the back half of its schedule.

Quick-hit Takeaways

-Bonner finished his second game looking the part of capable a MW starter. With the obvious caveat that over the next three weeks he’ll be forced to face bigger & faster defenses, 21/33 for 390 yards, four touchdowns and an interception is a nice line.

-Coach Anderson’s faith in the offense saw it convert 4-of-6 4th downs in this game. These Aggies play to win and through their first two games the philosophy has been undeniably successful…except in the final minute of the first half, when Justin Rice forced a turnover at midfield, and everyone just kind of agreed they were ready for halftime. Against better opponents, I expect the coaches will aim to make more of those opportunities.

-8 catches for 172 yards and a touchdown for Deven Thompkins. Stud.

-14 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown for Calvin Tyler Jr., also a stud. Bowling, Wright, Noa and RB John Gentry also shined to varying degrees, but you didn’t read all this way just so I could transcribe the box score for you.

-Utah State’s defense looked disoriented early as it scrambled to deal with ND’s misdirection and frequent tests of the DL and LB units’ mental discipline, which is concerning with Air Force on the schedule this week. That said, they bowed up after the first quarter and the defensive line seems especially ripe for a season of exciting breakout performances.

-It’s true, the Aggies have played one bad Pac-12 team and one good FCS team, but being 2-0 still changes the complexion of a season — particularly with a group as new to each other as these patchwork-Aggies still are.

Air Force, Boise and BYU will be admittedly tough tests, but this early pair of wins should help maintain some measure of confidence in this group’s abilities over that stretch. This team is ahead of schedule, a ton of fun, and doing enough things right to keep thousands of soaked fans in their seats for 90 minutes with the power out just to see some football.

 

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