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Winning close games paying dividends for Utah State football

Utah State Aggies wide receiver Justin McGriff (10) celebrate a touchdown with Utah State Aggies running back Elelyon Noa (34) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Utah State Aggies wide receiver Justin McGriff (10) celebrate a touchdown with Utah State Aggies running back Elelyon Noa (34) in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

LOGAN β€” In an alternate reality, Utah State Football could easily be 1-6 on the season.

But thanks to a late forced fumble here, or a last-second touchdown there, the Aggies have eked out four victories over FBS foes this season, all by 4 points or less.

The latest dramatic victory came Friday night in Logan. Colorado State's last-second field goal hooked wide left, and Utah State came away with the 26-24 win.

The last time the Aggies won this many close games was 2011 when Gary Andersen's crew won five games by one score or less. Not even that season was as impressive, though. They went 5-5 in one-score games, while the 2021 Aggies are 4-0 in those contests.

With the margin for error being ever so thin, Utah State has shown being on the right side of the scoreboard pays dividends.

The transcending team from Cache Valley sits at 3-1 in Mountain West play and stands alone at first place in the Mountain division.

The Aggies lone conference loss is to Boise State, who is currently 3-2 against the Mountain West. And they have head-to-head victories against other contenders in the division, Colorado State and Air Force, who are 2-1 and 3-2 in conference play respectively.

The Aggies have the easiest remaining schedule of anyone in the conference. Their remaining conference games are against Hawaii (4-4), San Jose State (4-4), Wyoming (4-3) and New Mexico (3-5); those teams are a combined 4-10 against Mountain West foes. ESPN FPI ranks Utah State No. 129 in remaining strength of schedule.

Thus, coming off a 1-5 2020 season, Utah State is currently in the drivers' seat for a division title and spot in the Mountain West championship game.

Nobody would have predicted this before the season, but here we are.

"To be truthful, we don't talk about championships, first place, second place at all," said first-year head coach Blake Anderson. "We're just focused on getting better every day, one degree better every day. Just had that same conversation in the locker room, said 'guys don't let the focus change, if we do what we're supposed to do everything else takes care of itself.'"

Obligatory coach speak is expected at this point of the season, and probably best for the players to hear. Because so far, trying to be "one degree better" has worked out pretty well for the Aggies. But take a step back and look at how things have gone, is it gratifying for the players?

"Yeah, 100%," said receiver Derek Wright. "Obviously, last season didn't go as planned, so in order for us to come out and have the year that we have had, obviously two tough losses to two good teams, but at the end of the day being 5-2, I don't think a lot of people outside of this family expected that coming into the season."

Expectations have been exceeded largely because Utah State has found a way to win close games. To do that, it's required a different unit to step up every weekend.

Against Air Force, it was the offense that led the way, gaining 628 yards and scoring 49 points. On Oct. 16 against UNLV, the defense stepped up, holding the Rebels to 3-of-12 on third downs and just 7 second-half points.

Friday night against the Rams, the group that stood out was special teams.

With Colorado State opting not to kick it to Savon Scarver, who tied the all-time NCAA record for kickoff returns with seven against UNLV, fellow senior receiver Deven Thompkins stepped up. In the second quarter, he returned a kickoff 54 yards to the Rams' 41-yard line. It helped set up a Connor Coles field goal to give the Aggies a 17-14 lead.

On the proceeding kickoff, a pooch kick by Elliot Nimrod was recovered by Utah State's Micheal Anyanwu at the Colorado State 24-yard line. Coles booted in another field goal to give the Aggies a 20-14 lead into halftime.

Recovering the shallow kick was no accident. It was a play the special teams unit had been working on in practice all week leading up to the game.

"I think the team battled so hard in all three phases and special teams performed great," Coles said. "Credit that a lot to the emphasis we give it in practice and throughout the week … coaches make it clear how important it is. And so the players are able to care and go hard in those phases."

Coles made the greatest impact on the unit. Just one week after going 0-of-3 on field goals against UNLV, the senior placekicker from Bozeman, Montana, went 4-of-4 against the Rams, booting in kicks from 45, 30, 42 and 34 yards.

"You know, there was nobody telling me how bad I did against UNLV," Coles said. "I think they knew that I knew that it needed to be better and they trusted me that it would be better, and so I did everything this week to make sure that I wouldn't let the team down again. I'm really happy to go out there and perform and help us win this game."

Winning the game by just 2 points, every kick proved essential. Cole's two kicks in the second half felt particularly important. While the Aggie offense struggled to sustain drives, he managed to come in and give Utah State a two possession lead on two separate occasions.

With Hawaii coming to town on Saturday, Utah State hopes they can win without a herculean effort from its kicker. Or a last-second miss from the other team's kicker.

Plus, winning by a greater margin may be healthy for the head ball coach.

"They're absolutely killing us, beyond stressful," Anderson said.

But as long as the Aggies find a way to win, regardless of what fashion it comes in, he knows they'll have a shot at the conference title.

"I hope that we're able to put enough in a row that it matters at the end."

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