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Closing in on division title, Utah State hosts Wyoming on senior night

Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (4) rushes against San Jose State safety Jay Lenard (27) and defensive lineman Cade Hall (92) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, San Jose, Calif.

Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (4) rushes against San Jose State safety Jay Lenard (27) and defensive lineman Cade Hall (92) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, San Jose, Calif. (Tony Avelar, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

LOGAN β€” It's starting to feel real for the Utah State football team.

Fresh off a resounding 48-17 win over San Jose State Saturday, the Aggies (8-2, 5-1 MWC) appear to be playing their best football of the season and are now just two wins away from winning the Mountain division and playing in the Mountain West Championship game.

Utah State has controlled its own destiny since Oct. 16 when the Aggies defeated UNLV and Boise State lost to Air Force. But back then, the jury was still out on how good the Aggies could be. They had lost two of their last three and beat a winless Rebels squad on a last-minute touchdown.

Four games later, Utah State leads the Mountain division over Boise State and Air Force and fits the part. After edging out Colorado State at home, they've defeated Hawaii, New Mexico State and San Jose State by an average of 23 points.

The run defense, which was one of the Aggies' biggest issues the first half of the season, has led the way the past three games, giving up an average of 17 rushing yards per game. The offense has also shined in those games; quarterback Logan Bonner threw four touchdowns in each game, and Deven Thompkins, who leads the nation in reception yards, averaged 172 reception yards.

The win over San Jose State last week was particularly impressive. Last season's conference champion started Nick Starkel for the first time since an injury in late September, and the Spartans were 3.5 point favorites at home over the Aggies.

After trailing 14-0, Utah State finished on a 48-3 run and outgained the Spartans in yards 410-150.

That win turned some heads for people outside of Utah. The Aggies received 12 votes in Sunday's Associated Press Top 25 poll and ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit declared Blake Anderson one of his top coaches from week 11.

CBS Sports analyst Tom Fornelli said Sunday, "The job Blake Anderson has done with USU Football this season is incredible."

The Utah State coaching staff and players appear to be enjoying every bit of it, too.

"If you've seen the videos of the dudes dancing, I mean, they're just having a blast playing ball together, and I love that about this group," Anderson said. "I think they deserve it with all they've been through and the work they've given us. It fills your heart to see them have fun; and the fact that we're competing here for some meaningful games to finish the season is even more exciting for them."

The next meaningful game is Saturday against Wyoming for the Battle of the Bridger Rifle; it'll be senior night at Maverik Stadium where the Aggies will honor 16 players.

Linebacker AJ Vongphachahn, who has played a big role in the improved Aggies defense, recognizes what's at stake against the Cowboys.

"I mean, it's obviously the next step," he said. "But, you know, I think each game gets bigger and bigger as the season goes on."

Playing games of consequence this late in the season is an unfamiliar experience for Vongphachahn and several other Aggies who weren't on the 2018 roster. But they recognize the opportunity that's been presented to them.

"I mean, it's something that motivates us as a group, you know, especially this late. I mean, this is my third season, and it's my first year playing meaningful games in November," Vongphachahn said. "So I just definitely feel a different attitude around the guys and practice. We just want to get better each day, even though it's the same stuff over and over and over."

Riding a five-game win streak, the extra motivated Aggies will take on a Wyoming team that's been trending in the wrong direction this season. After starting 5-0, they've lost five of their last six games, including a loss to New Mexico.

But that doesn't mean the Cowboys will roll over. That's thanks to their defense, led by possible 2022 NFL draft pick linebacker Chad Muma. The "Pokes" are No. 4 nationally in passing defense and give up just 162 yards in the air per game. The most points they've given up in conference play this season is 27 against San Jose State.

"Very powerful, very big," Anderson said. "Ball control, field position control, physical downhill football team. They play phenomenal defense, not afraid to challenge you in man coverage and get up in your face."

Obviously, Bonner and the dynamic Utah State passing attack, which averages 247 passing per game, will look to pick the stiff Wyoming secondary apart. But the key to an Aggies win may be something else its excelled at recently: the run defense.

In the Cowboys' one conference win against Colorado State, they established the run and gashed the Rams for 385 rushing yards. In that game, two different guys, Levi Williams and Titus Swen, rushed for over 100 yards. The Cowboys leading rush on the season, Xazavian Valladay, added 76 yards.

Utah State knows they have to slow them down.

"We've got to do what we've been doing, stopping the run," Vongphachahn said. "I think that's gonna be the biggest thing, and I think if everyone does their job and takes care of business we'll be just fine."

For Anderson, who has spearheaded the incredible bounce-back season, it's starting to feel real. For most of the season, he shrugged off questions regarding the divisional title chase; but in this week's press conference, he mentioned the situational while noting the team can't overlook Wyoming.

"Obviously, the game is huge for us," Anderson said. "We need to continue to stay out in front and control our destiny to get to the championship game."

But first, they have to get by Wyoming.

"We just can't have a letdown," Anderson said. "After a big emotional win on the road."

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