Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
LOGAN — In the fourth quarter of Utah State's pivotal conference matchup against San Jose State Saturday night, Blake Anderson lifted his index finger up in the air to flash the No. 1 and smiled.
A 43-yard touchdown catch from Logan Bonner to Derek Wright had just extended what was once a 14-0 deficit to a 38-17 lead. The Aggies looked unstoppable in every facet.
The Utah State defense led the way and forced the San Jose State rushing attack into oblivion. The Aggies gave up just 12 rushing yards on 22 attempts and 150 yards of total offense.
The Aggies offense, which started the game slow, found a rhythm in the final three quarters and piled on 410 yards of offense. Bonner threw for 263 yards and four touchdowns on 20-of-33 passing as the Aggies went on to defeat the Spartans 48-17.
With two games remaining against teams with a combined conference record of 2-10, Utah State's (8-2, 5-1 MWC) chances of winning the Mountain division of the Mountain West Conference look increasingly likely.
That's certainly something to smile about for Anderson and his team.
"Great, great game," Anderson said. "On the road against the defending champs. I told the guys, you want to be the champ you got to beat the champ, and they accepted the challenge. Coming in again as an underdog, I think to some degree, the guys felt a little bit disrespected. But they play with unbelievable effort all night long."
The Aggies' defense, which entered Saturday night's game third in the nation in tackles for loss, controlled the line of scrimmage and shut down seemingly anything the San Jose State offense wanted to do.
Utah State finished with eight tackles for loss and two sacks; the defense gave up just one touchdown, and it was when San Jose State started at the Aggies' 30-yard line. Holding the Spartans to 12 rushing yards showed how much the run defense improved this season.
After giving up 219 rushing yards to UNLV and 190 yards to Colorado State, the Aggies defense appears formidable in the trenches, giving up an average of 24.3 rushing yards per game in the past three games.
"I think the whole front end and then collectively the defense just played phenomenal all night," Anderson said. "There've been a couple letdowns, I think in some certain circumstances, but we've leaned on those guys all year."
When they weren't shutting down the run game, the Aggies were disrupting the passing attack. Nick Starkel was held to 19-of-29 passing for 138 yards and two turnovers.
The turnovers came courtesy of striker Ajani Carter, who had himself a game to remember for Utah State. In the second quarter, he forced a fumble and recovered it at the Spartans 4-yard line, setting up a Utah State touchdown. He also had an interception in the fourth quarter and returned it to the Spartans' 8 yard-line, setting up another Aggies touchdown.
The fumble was a particularly big play — swinging momentum that was initially in San Jose State's favor.
The Spartans gained momentum at the end of the first quarter when Kenyon Reed picked off Bonner and took it the distance. Moments later, San Jose State defensive lineman Villiami Fehoko forced a Bonner fumble deep in Utah State territory. The turnover set up a touchdown run from running back Tyler Nevens to give the Spartans the 14-0 advantage.
The Aggies responded as Bonner hit Thompkins in double coverage for a 43-yard gain. Then a jet sweep pass to Savon Scarver put Utah State in the end zone and on the scoreboard.
The next defensive possession for Utah State is when the momentum completely changed. The Aggies defense, which brought a lot of pressure early on, sent in Carter, who went in untouched and hit Spartans backup quarterback Nick Nash, who forced a fumble and then recovered it. A 4-yard touchdown pass from Bonner to Wright evened the score at 14-14.
"It was a big, big play to get a turnover on defense," Carter said. "We're always working to get turnovers. … It was an exciting moment, it was good to get a score off of that."
The Aggies are now 5-0 in road games this season and have fallen behind by double digits in each game.
"We say it all the time, we've been here before, because we have," Bonner said. "I don't like being that way, but guys never panic; this team never panics. And this team plays for everybody on the team. I think that that's what makes us special."
Utah State, who closed the game on a 48-3 run, seemed to do everything right following Carter's forced fumble and recovery.
With 9:50 left in the half, Nick Heninger sacked Starkel and the Aggies defense forced a three-and-out series. The Utah State offense got the ball at the Spartans' 43-yard line and were soon in the end zone on a touchdown run from Elelyon Noa. After another there-and-out series forced, the Aggies chipped in a field goal to take a 24-14 lead into the half.
The Spartans opened the second half with a field goal to make it a one-possession game, but the Aggies offense opened the air raid.
Bonner hit Thompkins for a 53-yard gain and then found Brandon Bowling for a 5-yard touchdown to give Utah State a 31-17 lead.
Thompkins, who finished with five receptions for 127 yards, posted his sixth-straight 100-yard receiving performance, which is the longest active streak in the nation.
The two-possession lead seemed more than sufficient because the Aggies defense didn't allow the Spartans to do much the rest of the game. The final six possessions for San Jose State went as follows: punt, fumble, punt, punt, interception, punt.
For good measure, Utah State tacked on two more touchdowns, the 53-yard reception for Wright, and a 6-yard run for Calvin Tyler Jr. According to Anderson, it was the most complete performance of the season for his team.
"I think from beginning to end, really no breakdowns," he said. "We played a lights out game all night."
The Aggies now turn their attention to Wyoming, who they take on at home Saturday.