What a special day. There a lot of pride on that defensive unit in the fourth quarter. —USU head coach Matt Wells
LOGAN — A year after winning just three games, the Aggies are poised to return to a bowl game once again.
Utah State dominated Hawai’i, 38-0, Saturday afternoon during Senior Day at Maverik Stadium to gain bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
“It feels really nice,” USU senior safety Dallin Leavitt declared. “We doubled our win total from last year, and we’re now going bowling.”
The first shutout by the Utah State defense since a 13-0 blanking of Colorado State on Nov. 23, 2013, the Aggies (6-5 overall, 4-3 in the Mountain West) clearly benefitted from last week’s bye. Playing on a mostly sunny but chilly day in Cache Valley, USU surrendered 318 total yards but held the Warriors to just 5 of 19 on third-down conversions and 1 of 5 on fourth-down attempts.
“Shutouts are hard to come by, and that Colorado State game was a long time ago. It was my first year here as head coach, and there’s only a handful of guys around here that were here in 2013,” USU head coach Matt Wells noted. “What a special day. There a lot of pride on that defensive unit in the fourth quarter.”
The win improved Wells’s record as a head coach to 6-0 in games following bye weeks.
“You saw a very fresh, and a very energized team out there today,” Wells said. “I thought we looked very fast, especially early in the game.”
One of the players who looked particularly energized was senior running back LaJuan Hunt, who surpassed 100 yards rushing for the second straight game, carrying the ball 13 times for 111 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown on USU’s first play of the second half.
“It was just an inside zone play, and we got it blocked up right,” Hunt said. “I made my read, broke a tackle, and, once I got into the open field, I knew that I was scoring it.”
Sophomore Gerold Bright, who was moved from wide receiver to running back in recent weeks, also ran for a 60-yard score and ended up with 93 yards on just eight carries. As a team, Utah State ran for 311 yards on 39 carries, while freshman quarterback Jordan Love (9 for 14 for 113 yards, one touchdown and one interception) and senior quarterback Kent Myers (3 for 6 for 51 yards and one touchdown) combined for 164 more yards through the air.
The starter for the first half of the season, Myers was inserted for one series in the second quarter and promptly ran for a 26-yard gain, then connected with senior wide receiver Braelon Roberts for a 49-yard touchdown two plays later.
“I’m happy for that kid,” Wells said of Myers. “That kid has been a great teammate, been a great leader and been a great football player here at Utah State. And for him to have that moment on Senior Day, I think is big time and something he’ll never forget.”
Utah State’s first drive of the game ended with a missed 41-yard field goal by Dominik Eberle, but the Aggies scored on their next three possessions, with Love throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ron’Quavion Tarver between Bright’s touchdown run and Myers’s perfectly thrown ball to Roberts.
The Warriors could have easily got back into the game in the second quarter, as the guests held the ball for more than 11 minutes, primarily due to the rushing efforts of senior Dicomey Saint Juste, the seventh-leading rusher in the country coming into the contest. But a 19-play drive ended with the USU defense stopping the Warriors on fourth-and-9 at the 15-yard line.
Then, after Love was intercepted on the Aggies’ next offensive play, the Utah State defense held firm again. This time, junior safety Gaje Ferguson stripped the ball away from Saint Juste on third-and-goal at the 1 with five seconds left in the half. The fumble was recovered by linebacker Justus Te’i, marking the seventh straight time that an Aggie opponent had ventured into the red zone only to come away with zero points.
“There was a lot of bend-but-don’t-break,” Wells said. “We had tremendous red-zone defense that has to be a first holding opponents scoreless like that. That’s just unbelievable.”
Utah State all but finished off its only Mountain West victory at home with Hunt’s 48-yard score at the start of the third quarter, but the Aggies also ended up getting a 20-yard field goal by Eberle and a 15-yard TD run by Love, who lost his left shoe while spinning away from a defender by still went into the end zone standing up.
“That was determination, man,” Hunt said of Love’s run. “He spun off a tackle, lost a shoe and still found a way to get into the end zone. I thought he was getting tackled at the 5, but he then barreled his way into the end zone.”
Defensively, the Aggies totaled four sacks — three of them in the first quarter — with Ferguson (eight tackles), Leavitt (seven tackles) and senior cornerback Jalen Davis (a career-high four pass breakups and one sack) leading the way.
Hawai’i coach Nick Rolovich ended up using two quarterbacks, with starter Dru Brown (16 for 29 for 128 yards) eventually giving way to freshman Cole McDonald (3 for 5 for 18 yards), who did rush for 45 yards on eight carries. Saint Juste carried the ball 28 times for 122 yards, 13 yards below his season average.
While the Rainbow Warriors have lost four straight games and eight of their last nine, the Aggies have won two straight contests and three of their last four. But, despite USU's qualifying for a bowl game, Wells made it clear that he is looking for a seventh regular season win at Air Force on Nov. 25.
“I’m happy with win No. 6, but there’s one more week to go,” Wells said. “A big emphasis for us coming off the bye week was to finish strong, and we’re on a two-week sprint. This is No. 6, but this is not the tip of the mountain for us.”