LOGAN – Right up until the final minutes, Thursday night’s game looked like it would end in an embarrassing loss for Utah State. For some Aggie fans, the 12-9 win over FCS Southern Utah might still be embarrassing, but at least it was a win.
For most of the game Utah State failed to get anything going offensively. When it was all finished, the offense had 250 total yards and had punted the ball 14 times. Luckily for them, they were bailed out by the special teams. Down 9-5 with about five minutes left to play, SUU punted the ball and Aggie junior Andrew Rodriguez found some space and returned the football 88 yards to score and take the lead. Not only was it was the third-longest punt returned for a touchdown in school history, but it was the difference in the game and came from a guy that wasn’t supposed to see the field much.
“What a huge punt return,” head coach Matt Wells said. “Maybe poetic, with the guy who did it. Wasn’t even a starter at that position when we started the night. But it just goes to show the fight in the kid and the fight in our team because they never gave up.”
Wells said he is proud of the way his team showed resilience, but he also understands just where the team stands. The six points from that touchdown and the PAT that followed were the only points scored the entire second half.
“I’m not going to try to put lipstick on a pig, I promise you that,” he said. “A lot of things to correct.”
The game-saving touchdown from Rodriguez energized the crowd. Aggie junior Nick Vigil said he jumped into the arms of fellow linebacker Kyler Fackrell after the ball was returned. Rodriguez said he knew the team had to do something to score, and that he was grateful his teammates made the blocks.
“I felt like as the returns went on, and the more and more returns I had, I kind of started understanding it more and kind of had an idea of where they’d be,” he said. “I guess I learned as I went.”
It was the first time the Aggies had the lead. SUU jumped on the scoreboard early on. After USU’s first drive of the game was stopped early, the punt was blocked and the Thunderbirds took over in Aggie territory. Two plays later, SUU quarterback Ammon Olsen completed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Mike Sharp. The five first-half points for USU came from a 30-yard field goal and a blocked Thunderbird PAT that Torrey Green returned the length of the field for two points. Vigil called Green’s return “huge.”
“That was a big play, a big momentum play early in the game after we gave them a touchdown” he said. “You don’t see that happen often, first time I’ve ever seen one in a real game.”
Two pass interference calls against USU on SUU’s last drive of the first half contributed to a 36-yard field goal that gave the Thunderbirds a 9-5 halftime lead. Overall, Wells was pleased with the defense, which allowed 163 yards.
The game was Chuckie Keeton’s first return to the gridiron since leaving last year’s game against Wake Forest due to injury, his second season-ending injury in as many years. The senior quarterback was 16 of 31 passing for 110 yards and threw one interception. Wells said he was going to wait to see the game film before commenting too much on how he thought Keeton played.
“I thought physically he was fine,” Wells said. “I thought he physically moved well. I thought he was elusive in the pocket.”
Wells said his team will “need to make a lot of progress between week one and week two.” Weeks two’s game is a big one. It will be next Friday night in Salt Lake City against rival Utah.
“They will be defined by how they move forward,” he said. “They will not be defined by tonight. At the end of the year that is going to be a ‘W’ on our side, whether it was by three points or 30 points.”