Utah State football beats Hawaii, one win from bowl eligibility

Utah State football beats Hawaii, one win from bowl eligibility

Win or go home.

The Utah State Aggies have played with that adage in the back of their minds ever since they lost to Wyoming nearly a month ago.

The loss to the Cowboys seriously threatened the Aggies’ hopes of becoming bowl eligible this season, not to mention their desire to repeat as Mountain West Conference champions.

Utah State won’t be repeating as conference champs, as the Mountain Division race is over for the Aggies after Boise State defeated Nevada and Wyoming escaped with a win over Colorado State Saturday night.

The Aggies’ hopes of qualifying for a bowl game remain very much alive, though, after they took down Hawaii 41-34 Saturday night for the fourth win in their past five games.

Now 5-5 overall — few would have seen that coming after USU started the season 1-4 — the Aggies are just one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons.

Like so much of this season, however, the win over the Rainbow Warriors didn’t come easily.

“I will never take a win for granted,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said afterward.

Every time it felt like Utah State was going to pull away from Hawaii, one of the worst teams in the MW this season, the Rainbow Warriors made just enough plays to keep things in doubt.

Utah State led 10-0 after the first quarter, 24-10 at halftime and 34-17 at the end of the third, and yet Hawaii was a recovered onside kick away from potentially sending the game to overtime at the end.

The Aggies’ offense woke up in a big way, with quarterback Cooper Legas throwing for 238 yards and three touchdowns, while running back Calvin Tyler Jr. emerged from concussion protocol to have his best all around game of the season, rushing for 113 yards and a score to go along with 50 receiving yards and another touchdown.

And yet, Hawaii accounted for more offensive yardage (541 to 374), had nine more first downs, ran more plays, averaged more yards per play and was perfect in the red zone.

“They just wouldn’t go away,” Anderson said. “We played really well. We didn’t play our best and obviously made a lot of mistakes that didn’t allow us to put this game away like we’d like, but give (Hawaii) credit.

“Their offense started to click and defensively they made us struggle at times, especially in the third and fourth quarter when we really needed to go down and put it away.”

The difference for the Aggies, the reason Utah State avoided a season-defining loss, came on defense.

Utah State forced four turnovers in the game, three of which were interceptions. Two of those came courtesy of redshirt freshman Ike Larsen, who returned the second 36 yards for what ultimately was the game-winning touchdown.

“We did enough to win,” Anderson said. “The turnovers created by the defense were awesome.”

Larsen’s especially.

“Every week he just gets better,” Anderson said. “He has a phenomenal career ahead of him. Glad he is wearing our colors. He just plays better every week and tends to be calm in the moment at the most critical times.

“That was a game that was uncomfortably close, and the pick-six came at a huge time. Just a critical play. Can’t wait to see how he progresses, grows and develops.”

Larsen’s fellow safety, Hunter Reynolds, also intercepted Hawaii quarterback Brayden Schager. The duo has become quite the one-two combo at the back of the Aggies’ defense, especially with Miami transfer Gurvan Hall Jr. no longer on the Utah State roster.

“We have really good chemistry,” Larsen said. “It has been building since even last year. It is nice to know that he trusts me and we can have each other’s back.”

Reynolds is the elder statesmen of the two, and his play was anything but surprising.

“That kid has been solid. He is one of the best leaders we have and just keeps getting better and better,” Anderson said.

“He is like having a coach on the field. To me, he has maximized his career, and he is getting looks at the next level and I think he gets them because he is so efficient and smart.”

Utah State scored 10 points off Hawaii turnovers, the difference between a win and a loss, when coupled with the fact that the Aggies’ offense was blemish free itself.

Aside from nine penalties, USU didn’t make things easy for the Rainbow Warriors.

“Not turning the ball over on offense was huge,” Anderson said.

For multiple weeks now, Utah State has managed to come away with a win despite not playing a complete game.

The closest the Aggies have come to that was in their victory over Air Force on Oct. 8. Since then, it’s been the defensive line against Colorado State, special teams against New Mexico and the secondary against Hawaii that have propelled the Aggies to victory despite struggles elsewhere.

Needing one more win to become bowl eligible, though, USU has to be better going forward — more complete — and the Aggies know it, what with games remaining against San Jose State (6-3) and Boise State (7-3).

“We are one step closer to bowl eligibility, which is what we really want,” Anderson said. “I’d love to take this group to a bowl, celebrate how hard they’ve worked and keep building.

“That will be difficult, too, with two very tough opponents ahead.”

Added Tyler Jr.: “It is a playoff mentality. We say it in the locker room, ‘It’s win over go home. Win or go home.’ That is the mentality we have to have.”

It has worked so far.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *