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LOGAN — The Utah State offense and defense have both shined in moments this season, but have struggled to consistently play well at the same time. The result? A lot of close games — the majority of which the Aggies have found a way to win.
But for the better part of three quarters on the afternoon before Halloween in Logan, the Aggies finally put together a complete game on both sides of the ball.
Their reward? A dominant 51-31 win over Hawaii and bowl eligibility. Now 6-2 on the season, Utah State remains in control of the Mountain West Mountain division, with three conference games remaining.
The Rainbow Warriors made it interesting late, scoring three touchdowns in the final 17:34 of the game, including a 67-yard fumble return with 8:20 left in the fourth quarter that cut the lead to 44-31. But the Aggies, who built a 41-10 lead in the third quarter, quickly whisked away hope for a Hawaii comeback when Brandon Bowling returned an onside kick attempt 46 yards for a touchdown with 8:12 left to play.
"I just told (the team), I'm super excited for them but I never doubted that we would be bowl eligible," Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. "Watching this team work in the offseason watching how they've progressed through fall camp, I didn't know if it was going to be pretty or ugly but I knew we were going to find a way."
An underwhelming showing from the student section, perhaps due to the "Halloween Howl" — a campus-sponsored party that attracts upwards of 6,000 students — that ended just 12 hours prior to kickoff, resulted in a reported 19,219 people on hand to witness a historic day from Deven Thompkins.
Finishing with seven receptions for 176 yards, Thompkins surpassed the 1,000-yard reception mark on the season, the first Aggies player to accomplish the feat since Kevin Curtis in 2002. Thompkins broke the mark in impressive fashion, too.
Late in the second quarter, the 5-foot-8 senior out-jumped two Hawaii defenders and reeled in a 47-yard grab for to eclipse the mark with 1,003 yards. With five games remaining in the regular season, Thompkins is on pace to break Curtis' record of 1,531 set in 2001.
"I want to hope he's just one of many to do it in the future because I think we're just getting started on what we can do offensively." Anderson said. "He just is a huge spark plug and his ability to play big for a small guy — he elevated a couple of times in one on one situations and played the ball — that's not something everybody can do, especially at 5-foot-8."
Thompkins was aided by quarterback Logan Bonner, who had arguably his best performance of the season. The junior transfer was 21-for-30 passing for 361 yards and four touchdowns. His throws were crisp and on target; and for the first time all season, he didn't throw an interception.
"You really don't realize when you're in the moment the stats or what you're doing," Bonner said. "I mean, you obviously know the touchdowns and stuff like that, but I was trying to focus on the team, getting the guys going, putting the nail in the coffin."
The Aggies defense was stout for the majority of the game, as well, particularly on the ground. The defensive line had their way in the trenches, totaling 11 tackles for loss while holding Hawaii to just 12 rushing yards. The defense struggled in the passing attack, as Rainbow Warrior quarterback Cheven Corderio finished 23-of-39 passing for 296 yards and three touchdowns, but he also had five sacks and an interception.
"We've been the smaller group in the last several games. We've been out matched physically, size wise, but they looked a little bit more like us and we felt that might help us," Anderson said. "Some of our line movements were good. We really just came out executing the game plan really, really well."
In the third quarter, the rout appeared to be on for the Aggies. Utah State scored three touchdowns in their first three possessions of the second half. Bonner connected with Derek Wright for a 46-yard touchdown, who celebrated with a fist pump while the ROTC cannon blew.
On the next possession, Bonner hit Carson Terrell on a tight end screen and he waltzed in 21 yards untouched into the end zone. Following a three-and-out series forced by the Aggies defense, Bonner manufactured another drive down field, this time finding Bowling for a 14-yard touchdown pass to go up 41-10 with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
With Utah State holding out starting linebacker Aj Vongpachanhn and Justin Rice the following possession, Hawaii went down the field and scored a touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Cordero to Koali Nishigaya.
After a fumble by Utah State quarterback Andrew Peasley in Aggies territory, Cordero connected with Calvin Turner Jr. for a 27-yard touchdown to cut the score 41-25. A fumble recovered by Hawaii's Eugene Ford on a muffed option play from Peasley and Bowlings kickoff return were the final touchdowns of the game.
"I would have liked to see it cleaner down the stretch," Anderson said. "We had some silly things that we did late that or we could have put the game away a little bit earlier. And that to me is where the frustration comes from."
The first half went a little smoother.
To start, Elelyon Noa had a 36-yard rush that was followed by a 3-yard run into the end zone. On the Aggies' second possession, Bonner connected with a wide open Justin Mcgriff for a 45-yard touchdown to give the Aggies a 14-0 lead.
The Utah State defense also started out strong and forced a three-and-out. And on the second Hawaii possession, Byron Vaughns got a hand on a Cordero pass, and Cash Gilliam recovered it for an interception in the end zone.
Hawaii got on the board in the second quarter with a 49-yard field goal from Matthew Shipley. After forcing an Aggies punt, Hawaii got the ball back and Cordero connected with Dedrick Parson for a 31-yard touchdown to cut Utah State's lead to 17-10 with 2:44 left in the half.
Peasley, who replaced a gimpy Bonner at the end of the half, hit Thompkins for his historic 47-yard catch, setting up Connor Coles' second of three field goals.
Utah State now turns its attention to New Mexico State next Saturday in Las Cruces.