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Utah State's offense fails to show up in loss to Memphis in First Responder Bowl

Memphis wide receiver Eddie Lewis (18) returns a punt during the first half of the First Responders Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah State, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Dallas.

Memphis wide receiver Eddie Lewis (18) returns a punt during the first half of the First Responders Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah State, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Dallas. (Sam Hodde, Associated Press)

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DALLAS β€” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson is not one to shy away from bluntness.

After he witnessed his offense no-show and his team's defense get gashed at times in a disappointing 38-10 loss to Memphis on Tuesday in the First Responders Bowl, his remarks that followed were straightforward.

"We had what we had going against this group. We knew the matchup was not in our favor," Anderson said. "We had to play perfectly to overcome that, and we just didn't.

"Would love to have gotten a win here, but just really didn't have the manpower in some areas and the size and power that we needed to get that done. ... Other than the first drive, and the drives that we scored the touchdown, there was just no rhythm the rest of the day. We looked confused at times."

What's there left to say?

It was a forgettable day at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, for the Aggies and its sparse crowd that dotted the west sideline. Playing in a stadium where the exterior brick of the stadium is disguised to look like just another building on SMU's beautiful campus, there were times Utah State's offense disguised itself to look non-existent.

In a game the Aggies had nearly a month to prepare for, they mustered just 89 first-half yards of offense and 261 total yards in the game. The offense turned the ball over twice, wracked up eight penalties for 54 yards, and, from the looks of certain players who walked over to speak with family members in the stands prior to the game's end, seemed disinterested in being there.

It's easy to point out the way Utah State prepped for the game; the team let players go home during finals week and did not begin official bowl practices until Dec. 20.

Anderson brushed it off and suggested it was the right move to let the team freshen up after the grueling season. He added that they "weren't gonna get any bigger and stronger over the course of the break."

The reality was the game was a grim encapsulation of how much the season went for Utah State.

Winning five out of their last six games to reach bowl eligibility after starting 1-4 is certainly an accomplishment; however, the Aggies finished with just three wins over bowl-eligible opponents and struggled to put a consistent offense on the field all year long.

And short of blaming specific coaches or players, Anderson publicly admitted the failures.

"It's been a frustrating year offensively," he said. "When you consider what we were able to do a year ago to how the offense looked this year, it's a night and day difference. So that's definitely a place that we've got to get better at to be able to compete at the level we want to."

What transpired in the Metroplex on Tuesday reflected that.

Facing a Memphis team that gives up 270 passing yards per game, the Aggies offense that boasted six starting seniors and was fully healthy could hardly manage to move the chains.

Cooper Legas threw for 34 yards on 7-of-12 passing, was sacked three times, and exited the game in the third quarter with a leg injury sustained on a sack. Calvin Tyler Jr. rushed for 79 yards on 16 attempts β€” and eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark to cap off his two-year Utah State tenure β€” but his efforts weren't enough.

"Everything they did we knew they were going to do," Tyler said. "They were going to be physical, they were going to play upfield field. … They were just a better team today."

The game opened with Legas missing an open Terrell Vaughn on a third down deep pass to begin the game. The second possession ended in a three-and-out; Legas was sacked on back-to-back plays. A promising third drive stalled out with a field goal.

The Aggies defensive line did what it could to make things competitive. It found success by pressuring Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan and finished with five sacks and 13 tackles for loss.

But the Tigers, who struggled to beat the Aggies' defense in the trenches, adjusted in the second quarter by attacking the field laterally through screen plays to get its players in space, and Utah State's linebackers and secondary couldn't keep up.

In the second quarter, Memphis receiver Broc Taylor broke loose for a 28-yard gain on a screen pass and Henigan got Memphis in the end zone with a 15-yard pass to a wide-open Eddie Lewis.

An Aggies three-and-out later and Memphis got back in the end zone when Lewis beat Micheal Anywanwu in one-on-one coverage for a 22-yard reception. After Utah State failed a fourth-and-1 conversion prior to the half, Memphis marched down and scored to lead 24-3 at the break.

Memphis tacked on two fourth-quarter touchdowns and finished with 430 yards of offense.

"Yeah, I think they just took advantage of the one-on-ones they had," linebacker AJ Vongpachahn said. "More importantly, we hurt ourselves, especially down the stretch."

Utah State's defense gave the offense a gift in the third quarter and forced a Henigan fumble in the Memphis territory, but backup Bishop Davenport and the Aggies went backward and ended up punting the ball away.

Davenport later connected with Brian Cobbs for a 44-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, which was the lone bright spot on yet another day of watching an offense that Anderson called "anemic."

"Just (an) inability to create any rhythm other than the first drive, and the drives that we scored the touchdown," Anderson said. "There was just no rhythm the rest of the day."

Questions loom over the program as the offseason begins: What changes need to be made to fix the offense? Can the Aggies keep players out of the transfer portal, and add new ones from it? How will the ongoing lawsuit charged by former player Patrick Maddox play out?

Meanwhile, the 2022 season comes to a close, and though it sputtered with a handful of victories on and off the scoreboard, is ultimately ended in disappointment.

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