The difference between Utah and Utah State Thursday night went right down the field. A surprise onside kick late in the third quarter set the stage for a fourth stanza that saw the Utes prevail, 30-26.
Here's a closer look at both the Utes and the Aggies, position by position, as they performed in Thursday's football contest, beginning with the offenses.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. email@example.com | @wilklogan
Utah: Travis Wilson was steady enough throughout the evening, going 17 of 28 for 302 yards and two touchdowns. He showed savvy in tearing down the field when his team trailed in the second half. Anthony Denham (six receptions, 113 yards) proved to be a prime target for Wilson, something the Utes sorely needed after Kenneth Scott’s early exit due to injury.
Kelvin York (10 carries, 47 yards) didn’t fare well enough to convince anyone that he should be the long-term starter. In fact, James Poole (12 carries, 47 yards) and Karl Williams (12 carries, 46 yards) got more touches. GRADE: B+
Utah State: Chuckie Keeton was hardly contained in the first half, when he threw for 202 of his 314 yards with two touchdowns. It was much the same after intermission, when Keeton’s scrambling prowess paralleled a passing groove so deep that the junior broke his own completions record, going 31 of 40. With two touchdown passes, Keeton now ranks third in USU history with 40 career tosses.
He did fumble once in the second quarter when his team was in scoring position.
Sophomore receiver Brandon Swindall became the first Aggie with multiple touchdown receptions in the same game since Matt Austin had two against New Mexico State on Dec. 3, 2011. Swindall got his in the first half — though he did fade after halftime.
Joe Hill proved valuable in his first game as a starter, rushing for 79 yards on 18 carries. GRADE: B
Utah: For 3 1/2 quarters, the Utes performed below average — but then made the necessary stop, forcing a USU three-and-out with less than five minutes left in the game. That came just after an Andy Phillips kick had given Utah the lead for good. The Utes gave up 487 total yards. GRADE: C
Utah State: The Aggie defense did not make stops when it most needed to — particularly during a Utah drive midway through the fourth quarter that led to Phillips’ go-ahead field goal. Then the Aggies allowed multiple long runs from Utah backs on the Utes’ final drive of the stanza and let Wilson gain 3 yards on a run on 3rd-and-1 with 2:18 remaining.
The rest of the game wasn’t great, either. Overall, the Aggies gave up 450 total yards of offense. GRADE: C-
Utah: An onside kick allowed the Utes to regain possession immediately after making a field goal late in the third quarter. Wilson directed a fast drive on the tired USU defense, including two long passes to receiver Sean Fitzgerald, to give Utah a 24-23 lead.
Phillips was rather good for playing in his first football game — ever. His first field goal was a 45-yard boomer and he added the go-ahead kick late in the latter half of the fourth quarter.
The Utes lacked spectacular play in the return game. GRADE: A-
Utah State: The blame falls first on this group. Nick Diaz was named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Week last fall after relieving a kicker (Josh Thompson) who may have cost the Aggies a perfect regular season. Thursday, Diaz missed a simple point-after attempt.
And critically, the Aggies fell asleep on Utah's onside kick.
The Aggies don’t get an “F” only because Diaz made a couple of field goals. GRADE: D-
Utah: Kyle Whittingham outcoached USU’s Matt Wells when he caught the Aggies sleeping with the onside kick late in the third quarter. His hire of Dennis Erickson made a difference, too, given that the offense scored 30 points against an opponent that ranked in the top 20 nationally in several categories last season. Seven starters returned from that defense. GRADE: B
Utah State: Outside of the onside kick — half of which is on his players — Wells matched Whittingham Thursday night. He has repeated Gary Andersen’s phrase, “Players make plays, players win games,” and he let Keeton perform mightily. GRADE: B-
Keeton largely lived up to his lofty Heisman candidate status. But Wilson and the Erickson-led offense broke the supposedly stout Aggie defense, with an astute special teams play helping to make the difference. As a result, the Utes picked up what was as much of a "must-win" as a team can have in a season opener.
Utah State: B