Utah State's Turnaround Was Great, Can They Keep It Going?

Utah State's Turnaround Was Great, Can They Keep It Going?

Mountain West Football

Utah State's Turnaround Was Great, Can They Keep It Going?

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Even after a great start, the Aggies continued to improve. Alternating between Bonner and Andrew Peasley under center, the Aggies won their opening three games in dramatically differing fashions. From the low-scoring comeback at Washington to a blowout of North Dakota, and a boat race at Air Force, the Aggies shoed versatility and grit as they simply found ways to win. 

The Aggies then dropped two games in a way that seemed to mute their accomplishments early. After an impressive 3-0 start, Utah State found themselves somehow just a game over .500 with an extra week to absorb two consecutive losses. Besides that, the high-profile opponent didn’t help. Losing first to conference rival, Boise State, then to in-state rival, BYU, is not unpalatable nor unpredictable, but painful nonetheless. Local coverage would now be even more unfavorable for Utah State who failed to win their only in-state game. Additionally, now at 1-1 in conference play with a loss to a presumed front-runner in the division, the goal of a conference championship might have seemed just out of reach.

That may have dwindled early outside interest in the program, but it didn’t stop the Aggies.

With their narrative being written by doubters and their destiny in the hands of their opponents, Utah State retook control of their story. Using a five-game win streak, the Aggies wrestled their way back into the driver’s seat, not only of the conference but of their narrative and destiny, too. 

Clawing their way to the top of the division wasn’t easy for the Aggies. Utah State has to get through a tough schedule including, the defending conference champs and an inconvenient and uncharacteristically late non-conference game in Las Cruces, and Boise State just wouldn’t go away. Utah State navigated through that five-game win streak, winning games in differing fashions as unique as the first three. Then as the Aggies finally became the favorites and with Boise State and Air Force right on their heels, the Aggies tripped up just ahead of the finish line, falling to Wyoming just a week before the last game of the season. Utah State fell, and missing the conference title game became a possibility. In the final week of the regular season, the Broncos lost to the San Diego State Aztecs, and Utah State jumped on the opportunity to clinch the division by beating New Mexico 35-10.

Going from a 1-5 to a 9-3 regular season was already an impressive turnaround in its own right. That was only the start, though. The Aggies still had two more games to play—first, Utah State’s second-ever Mountain West Championship game, then a bowl game. Regardless of the result of the championship game, it seemed impossible that Utah State would not play in a bowl game, but which specific bowl could be decided by that game. Even though the Aggies were kings of the west, their trials were far from over. Peasley had gotten injured in the season finale, so Utah State would be going into the post-season without their second-string quarterback, who saw significant time during the season. This was particularly worrisome for Utah State as Bonner, their QB1, had a tendency to take big hits during the game. 

Utah State’s championship was nothing short of groundbreaking. The game was historic on multiple accounts. The Aggies won the game convincingly, beating San Diego State 46-13. Utah State made not just school history with the first-ever Mountain West title, but conference history. The Aggies cruising by Aztecs with them 46 points were the most ever in Mountain West title game history, and two of them came from the first-ever safety score in the championship game.

Coming into the game, San Diego State was ranked 19th with an 11-1 record. The Aztecs had non-conference wins against the PAC-12 champions, the Utah Utes, the Arizona Wildcats, and conference wins against the defending Mountain West champions, the San Jose State Spartans, Air Force, Nevada, Boise State, losing only to the Fresno State Bulldogs. The Aztecs were favored by 6.5, but becoming very familiar with winning as underdogs, the Aggies left no doubt handling San Diego State, letting the Aztecs into the endzone only once while putting up more than they had given up all year. 

Winning the championship game earned the Aggies an invitation to the brand-new SoFi stadium for the first-ever Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented By Stifel. Utah State’s opponent would be another PAC-12 team, the Oregon State Beavers. Once again, the Aggies entered the game as underdogs, and once again, the Aggies took care of business. Utah State routed the Beavers 24-13. Just 15 weeks after picking up their second-ever win against the PAC-12, the Aggies did it again, bookending the season with Power Five upsets, this time using their third-string quarterback, Cooper Legas, to do it. Bonner had come out of the game early, and Legas entered the game in style, launching an 82-yard touchdown pass to Deven Thompkins on his first career pass. Legas was just getting started. He finished his debut with another touchdown and 171 yards. The former Beaver, Calvin Tyler Jr., exacted revenge on his former team, running the ball 26 times for 121 yards and a touchdown. 

Perhaps the most painful thing about the bleak 2020 season is the abundance of talent on that team. Some left, seeking greener pastures beyond what Utah State could offer them. They can’t be faulted for jumping ship from a program in apparent decline. Some who left were rewarded for their decision. Fortunately, however, the ones who made the difficult decision to stay earned their reward while still wearing an Aggie uniform. Not only was the 2021 season the most remarkable comeback of Utah State history, but it could also be one of the greatest and most decorated seasons of all time.

The Aggies were doubted all season long. They weren’t supposed to win more than three games. They weren’t supposed to win the division. They weren’t supposed to win the conference. They weren’t supposed to play in a bowl game. They weren’t supposed to win that bowl game. Instead, Utah State reversed course on a disappointing season and performed one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in college football history. They didn’t just prove others wrong; they proved themselves right. It was an uphill battle from last winter with no quarterback to this year with three, but Utah State fought hard and earned every bit of what they got. Every win, all the accolades, the championships, and each award, was well deserved. 

After a successful campaign, Utah State has plenty to look back at and, fortunately, plenty to look forward to. Utah State football has been on the rise, and despite one bad year, the program is healthy. It has become clear that the 2020 season was an exception, not the rule. In the face of a successful decade before and a successful season immediately after, one bad season cannot define this program. What can define this program is its long-established culture of winning that took only one year off and is now back and soaring to new heights.

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