My, what a difference a year makes for the Utah State Aggies.
A one-win team last fall, the Aggies (7-2, 4-1 Mountain West) have turned it all around and find themselves currently in first place in their division.
Saturday's late affair on the road against San Jose State could go a long way in determining if Utah State finishes the regular season in the same spot.
"It reminds me of when I first got here in 2018 — back when we were good and were close to the championship," Aggies top-flight wide receiver Deven Thompkins told reporters in the lead-up to the conference contest at CEFCU Stadium in San Jose. "It's amazing. It feels like that all over again."
There's reason — beyond Thompkins' own amazing season — for the Aggies to be feeling that way. They are on a four-game winning run coming into Week 11, shooting them into first place in the Mountain Division. And they are unbeaten in four previous road games this season.
More success like that could give them their first division title since 2013. But Utah State's foe this week is as solid as it gets.
San Jose State is, after all, the reigning conference champ. While the Spartans (5-5, 3-3) won't be defending that title, they still know how to win. The defense is stingy, and the only game San Jose State has lost at home in four thus far came in double overtime to a ranked (and undefeated at the time) San Diego State squad.
There's also the matter that the Spartans need one more win to become bowl eligible.
"I love this team," head coach Brent Brennan told reporters. "And all I want for this team is to get them to play another game, to get them to play in the postseason. So for us all that matters is the Utah State game — and that's it."
Utah State at San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: San Jose State -4.5
When Utah State Has the Ball
Quarterback Logan Bonner and Thompkins have arguably the best chemistry in college football. And that connection was on full display in last week's 35-13 win at New Mexico State.
Bonner put up 359 passing yards with four touchdowns, two of those going to Thompkins. On the year, Bonner has thrown for 2,486 yards with 21 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
And Thompkins? Well … he leads the nation in receiving yards with 1,314. Last week, the senior finished with nine receptions for a whopping 215 yards.
"I'm at a loss for words," Thompkins told reporters. "It's something I've just been wanting, you know? I've been getting close every single week. One hundred-yard games, 177-yard games is cool and all, but I've just been waiting for this 200-yard game.
"In a way, it's a relief (to hit 200 yards in a game), but it makes me even more hungry. Being tied for ninth (most yards in a single game) in school history is cool, but I really want to be No. 1 in school history, so that's what I'm after now."
It won't be easy against San Jose State's defense, even though the Aggies are 13th in the FBS at 475.9 yards per game. The Spartans boast a strong secondary, one that forced two interceptions from Nevada star quarterback Carson Strong last week.
That said, SJSU will likely be without top cornerback Nehemiah Shelton this week, which could affect the ability to contain the Bonner-Thompkins connection. FYI: Thompkins averages eight catches and 146 receiving yards per game.
Bonner has other weapons to throw to. Senior receivers Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright have 470 and 469 receiving yards, respectively, while junior running back Calvin Tyler Jr. and sophomores Elelyon Noa and John Gentry have combined for 1,152 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
It's a high-octane attack and one that will have the Spartans' full attention.
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Is it a two-headed attack or a QB conundrum for Brennan? The coach doesn't seem to think it's the latter with both sophomore Nick Nash and senior Nick Starkel in the running for the starting job.
"Our team responds well to both players," Brennan told reporters. "That's been a cool thing, and it's been something Nick Nash has earned over the last month with his play. Obviously, he's made plays in years past, but nothing like he's had to do this year. I love the way our team responds to both players, and I think that's really, really healthy."
Last week, Starkel — fresh off an injury that sidelined him for all of October — got the bulk of the time but in a losing cause that saw Nevada win it with a 45-yard field goal in the waning seconds.
"I hate losing," Starkel told reporters. "It doesn't feel good, no matter how you put it — especially games like that. We play this game to play meaningful games in November, and that was a meaningful game for us. It hurts."
The experienced signal-caller will want to right the ship this week — and can — against a Utah State defense that is among the most porous in the Mountain West at 425.3 yards per game allowed.
Starkel has 1,247 passing yards in five games and — likely along with Nash (778 passing yards) — will be called upon more often than usual to deliver the goods on Saturday night.
That's because Utah State has been stuffing the run game recently, allowing just 49 rushing yards last week to the pass-happy Wolf Pack and only 12 to Hawaii the game before that.
So don't expect Spartans running back Tyler Nevens and his team-high 699 rushing yards to be a big part of the game plan, even though the senior ranks fourth in school history with 2,499 yards.
Another element to Utah State's bend-but-don't-break defense is the Aggies racked up 25 tackles for a loss in the last two games alone. They are seventh nationally in defensive stuff rate this season. So San Jose State will need to pop some big plays or the offense could find itself operating behind the chains often.
The key to this one might depend on Utah State getting out of the gate fast Saturday. The Aggies have been slow to start and have depended on the comeback far too often, including in last week’s win over New Mexico State.
"It's a lesson learned," USU head coach Blake Anderson told reporters Monday. "It comes probably at a good time. We can't afford to have those kinds of letdowns moving down the stretch, especially this week. We've got to play great for 60 minutes, and hopefully, it's an eye-opening experience of how you have to be ready. When the ball's kicked, you've got to be ready regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the weather, regardless of anything."
The four-game run the Aggies are on is happening regardless. And it’s the Aggies' defense that is likely to have the final say in whether the division leaders roll on to five straight wins.
If Utah State does turn San Jose State into a one-dimensional offense, which has been the defense's M.O. lately, then it gives the visitors the edge in this one.
Prediction: Utah State 28, San Jose State 24
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