SALT LAKE CITY — Following a rough opening quarter where Utah State trailed by two possessions, the Aggies offense exploded through the final 45 minutes and orchestrated a 41-3 run to finish the game.
While the defense significantly raised their level of play, quarterback Logan Bonner led the offense to their most productive performance in nearly two seasons. With an impressive 2-0 start to the 2021 campaign, there's a lot we learned from a Week 2 win against North Dakota, and Utah State might be better than many anticipated.
The defense produced leadership and it worked through the final three quarters
There's no denying that the first quarter was a little rough for the defense; the Aggies allowed 21 points and appeared to be in for a long night. North Dakota's fast-paced strategy seemed to take them a bit off guard, which led to miscues, mistakes and an initial two possession hole.
To their credit, the Fighting Hawks demonstrated versatility in the opening quarter with several reverses and even a flea-flicker type play, which kept Utah State's defense guessing. These types of plays seemed to rattle the Aggies early on as they couldn't decide who to defend and oftentimes were giving up sizable gains through the air.
Things changed in the second quarter as the Aggies flipped the script and were not so easily deceived. Utah State didn't allow another score through the first half, and perhaps the defining defensive series of the game was just before halftime. It's a moment where the Aggies demonstrated a higher level of physicality and recorded their first turnover of the game.
North Dakota had taken over with a little less than two minutes left in the half. Quarterback Tommy Schuster dumped off a pass to Luke Skokna, who was immediately met with contact and lifted into the air before being slammed to the ground by Nick Heninger. Following the punishing tackle, linebacker Justin Rice intercepted Schuster off of a tip from Dominic Tatum.
Throughout the rest of the night, the defense continued to suffocate the North Dakota offense and allowed only 3 points the rest of the way. With a continued high level of intensity and no more miscues or mistakes, the Aggies defense demonstrated just how impactful they can be in games.
The Utah State passing game is elite
Bonner silenced all the doubters Saturday night as he picked up right where he left off in Week 1, and then some. For the night, Bonner was an absolute offensive flamethrower, finishing 21-of-33 for 390 yards and four touchdowns.
Outside of an interception, Bonner's decision making and execution was excellent as he waited for plays to develop. He found the right receivers and hit them in stride. Perhaps his most impressive pass of the game was a 41-yard touchdown heave to Derek Wright down the sideline. After dropping into the pocket, Bonner floated the pass perfectly into the hands of Wright, connecting with him in stride and just out of the reach of the defender in the end zone.
As for the receivers, Devin Thompkins demonstrated why he is the No. 1 option as he recorded 172 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions (21.5 average). No matter if its long routes, short routes or even screen plays, Thompkins is a certified playmaker and one of the most talented receivers in the Mountain West.
But it wasn't just Thompkins who burned the Fighting Hawks' secondary. Brandon Bowling also went for more than 100 yards and finished with 118 all-purpose yards and a touchdown on six receptions. In addition to the 41-yard touchdown catch, Derek Wright also recorded 73 total yards and two touchdowns, posing as a huge threat in the end zone.
With so many explosive receivers and a plethora of ways to attack opposing defenses, Bonner and the receiving room will be a fun group to watch as they attempt to replicate their performances going into conference play.
Calvin Tyler Jr. should be RB1
After back-to-back solid performances by Oregon State-transfer Calvin Tyler Jr., the running back from Beaumont, Texas, may have claimed the No. 1 spot in the backfield. Against Washington State in Week 1, Tyler showed a lot of promise with 84 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries (6.0 average). Following the second game, he was just as good against North Dakota, where he finished with 72 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries (5.1 average).
What was most impressive about Tyler against the Fighting Hawks was his overall physicality. On multiple occasions, he simply put his head down and ran right through defenders. Not only did this help him pick up extra yards, but it also helped to convert several critical third-down plays and even punched it in on fourth-and-goal to give the Aggies a 34-24 lead early in the final quarter.
Two weeks in a row, Tyler has been the Aggies' most consistent and productive rusher. While there still may be carries for some of the other backs, Tyler should be getting the most reps moving forward to lead the ground game.
Overall, outside of the first quarter, it was an impressive performance by Utah State. While a lot of the preseason predictions didn't have the Aggies doing much in the Mountain West, their first two games would speak otherwise and they very well may be a dark horse contender in the conference.
Next week's game against Air Force will prove to be a true test of their abilities to see if they can replicate their early success in their first Mountain West Conference matchup.