No. 67: Utah State
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 3, 2012
From 1998-2010, a lifetime in this sport, there may not have been a worse program in college football: Utah State went 43-106 over this 13-year span, never winning more than five games and winning a combined 15 games from 2003-8. It was never, ever pretty; it was always ugly, or very, very often ugly. But Gary Andersen never lost faith, it seems, and after watching his teams make subtle progress from 2009-10 he led Utah State into bowl play last fall after a 14-year absence. Not that it was easy. And not that this past season didn’t have the fan base reaching for antacids: just as six losses came by a combined 26 points, Utah State’s total margin of victory over its five-game winning streak to end the regular season was only 19 points. It was never easy. But the road to perennial success is pocked with these sort of stumbles, often of the self-inflicted variety. The key is for the Aggies to take these life lessons and run with them, beginning in 2012 and moving beyond — from one conference, the WAC, to another, the Mountain West. The best news? Now that Andersen has tattooed a Utah State logo somewhere on his person, he’s not going anywhere. Right?
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 7
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
at Colorado St.
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 5
- Oct. 13
at San Jose St.
- Oct. 20
New Mexico St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 17
at Louisiana Tech
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Nevertheless, I think the Aggies do get to five wins. That would entail finishing 4-2 at home, which is certainly possible, and beating one of the two road teams — Idaho and New Mexico State — that come in November. What would it take to get to six wins? Probably a 5-1 home mark with one of those two road wins; or a 4-2 mark with a road sweep over the Vandals and Aggies, which is possible but not a certainty. So back to the original question: Is this a bowl team? If I had to guess today, I’d say no. But it will be close. I see five wins, and getting a sixth would require merely one win as an underdog — certainly doable. Year by year, Utah State is getting better. Even if that sixth win doesn’t come the Aggies are improving under Andersen, and I don’t think a bowl trip is all that far away.
In a nutshell A bowl is a bowl is a bowl, and that’s the bottom line. And a winning season? I’d wager that a full 100 percent of the Utah State fan base would have taken seven wins in August regardless of the road bumps along the way. But this team could have done more: the Aggies could have gone 10-3, for instance, and certainly could have won the WAC. The Aggies coughed up six should-have-been wins; at the very least, those six losses came in games the Aggies could have won, and it’s safe to say that this team should have won at least four of the six. U.S.U. was up 10 on Auburn with roughly two minutes left. Lost to Colorado State in overtime. Led B.Y.U. by double-digits in the fourth quarter. Led Fresno State at halftime. And yes, blew late leads against Louisiana Tech — losing the WAC in the process — and Ohio, the latter during bowl play. What could have been? Utah State could have won 10 games.
High point The five-game winning streak to end the regular season, highlighted by a 21-17 win against Nevada on Nov. 26. The Aggies hadn’t topped Nevada since — when? — 1999, and hadn’t held the Wolf Pack to less than 30 points in any of their six meetings from 2005-10. The best performance? How about that 63-19 win against Wyoming, which featured the program’s best first half performance in 20 years.
Low point Take your pick. Auburn stung, but it was a moral victory. Colorado State was relatively inexcusable; Andersen went for two in the second overtime, which I still don’t quite get. While it lacked the late-game drama, a 24-17 home loss to Louisiana Tech on Oct. 22 cost the Aggies the WAC crown.
Tidbit Utah State scored the game-winning score with less than a minute left four times last fall: with 47 seconds left against San Jose State, with 35 seconds left against New Mexico State, with 14 seconds left against Hawaii and in overtime against Idaho. In all, however, the Aggies went only 5-5 in games decided by one score or less — with the loss to Fresno State coming by 10 points. U.S.U. led the F.B.S. with 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, one ahead of Kansas State. In comparison, the Wildcats went 8-1 in such games.
Tidbit (turnovers edition) One thing U.S.U. did extremely well last fall was avoid interceptions. The Aggies finished third nationally in picks with six; Army and Temple tied for the lead with four, but the two combined for only 295 attempts on the season — five more passes than the Aggies tried as a team. One thing U.S.U. did not do well last fall, however, was force turnovers in the passing game. The Aggies ranked 118th nationally in interceptions with four, ahead of New Mexico and Akron. Not good company to be in, but U.S.U. balanced out its inability to force turnovers by taking care of the football on its own end.
Former players in the N.F.L.
13 WR Diondre Borel (Green Bay), TE Les Brown (Miami), CB Jarrett Bush (Green Bay), DE John Chick (Jacksonville), TE Chris Cooley (Washington), TE Tarren Lloyd (New York Jets), CB Curtis Marsh (Philadelphia), TE Rob Myers (Washington), OT Donald Penn (Tampa Bay), LS Patrick Scales (Baltimore), RB Michael Smith (Tampa Bay), RB Robert Turbin (Seattle), LB Bobby Wagner (Seattle).
Arbitrary top five list
Baseball players born in Utah
1. SP Bruce Hurst.
2. SP Kelly Downs.
3. C Duke Sims.
4. SP Ed Heusser.
5. RP Brandon Lyon.
Gary Andersen (Utah ’86), 15-22 after three seasons in Logan. Andersen opened with back-to-back 4-8 marks, not making much progression in the win column but beginning the development process associated with such a rebuilding project. That slow but steady growth — seen outside the standings — resulted in last year’s bowl berth, the program’s first in 14 years. Andersen was the head coach at Southern Utah for one season (4-7 in 2003) between extended stints as an assistant at his alma mater (1997-2002; 2004-8). Southern Utah’s four-win total in 2003 bested its total from the previous two seasons combined (2-9 in 2001, 1-10 in 2002). Andersen’s first stretch as a Utah assistant began as the defensive tackles coach (1997-2000) and culminated with his being named the assistant head coach to go with defensive line and special teams duties, positions he held for his final two seasons with the Utes. After his one-year sabbatical at Southern Utah, Andersen returned to Utah, first as defensive line coach (2004) before being promoted to assistant head coach and defensive coordinator (2005-8). On paper, Andersen seemed like a good fit for the Aggies. For starters, he brought a well-regarded defensive background to a program desperately in need of an overhaul. He had a strong familiarity with the area, something his predecessor did not have. Andersen also brought strong recruiting acumen to his new stop; he was once named the nation’s best non-B.C.S. conference recruiter by Rivals.com. No one says Utah State is going to beat out B.Y.U. and Utah for the premier players in-state, but Andersen has started bringing in a higher level of talent. My only question heading into last fall was this: Does Andersen have the fortitude to build this program from the bottom up? That question has been answered. The new question: What does Andersen and Utah State do for an encore?
Tidbit (coaching edition) After serving as his own defensive coordinator last fall — a task he was eminently qualified to do — Andersen will hand those duties over to former Hawaii coordinator Dave Aranda, whose familiarity with the WAC will come in handy. This move will free up Andersen for the C.E.O. aspects of his position, which should help give him more of a big-picture view of this roster. The Aggies promoted quarterbacks coach Matt Wells to offensive coordinator, replacing Dave Baldwin, who left for the same spot at Colorado State. It hurt to lose running backs coach Ilaisa Tuiaki to Utah, but Andersen tapped into his rolodex to hire Mike Sanford, the former U.N.L.V. head coach who served alongside Andersen at Utah in 2004. Sanford will also coach Utah State’s tight ends; Baldwin held that job last fall.
Players to watch
Utah State’s first task: choose a starting quarterback. You know the contenders. One is sophomore Chuckie Keeton, who grabbed the starting job roughly two quarters into last year’s season opener; the second is former JUCO transfer Adam Kennedy, who replaced an injured Keeton against Hawaii and led the Aggies to five straight wins to end the regular season. Kennedy is the better passer – he clearly has the better arm – though Keeton is still scratching the surface of his potential as a thrower. Keeton is the more athletic of the two, though Kennedy, like Riley Nelson at B.Y.U., seems to make plays with his legs when it counts. At face value: U.S.U. can’t go wrong.
That’s the case – seriously. Kennedy doesn’t entirely pass the eye test, but his turn as the Aggies’ starter speaks for itself. He won games, showing the sort of late-game comfort that you simply can’t teach, and took the Aggies’ passing game to another level. He avoided turnovers, took advantage of what was given to him on the ground and rallied the program to its first bowl berth in a generation. Keeton gives this offense another dimension as a runner – doubly important with the new faces at running back; above all else, Keeton did beat out the rest of the challengers to earn the starting nod in September.
On the year, Keeton threw for 1,200 yards, 11 scores and 2 picks while completing 60.9 percent of his attempts, adding 283 yards on the ground. Kennedy completed 69.1 percent of his throws for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns against 4 interceptions. Here’s the best news: Keeton and Kennedy can compliment each other well. Not that one shouldn’t play more than the other, but with one a stronger runner and the other a better passer, it’s possible that each can be used in certain packages. While U.S.U. won’t name a starter until well into fall camp, I think that last year’s run gives Kennedy a slight edge. Then again, Keeton’s physical gifts might be too much for Wells and Andersen to ignore.
The Aggies’ second task: find depth at running back. What the offense has is a clear lead back in senior Kerwynn Williams (542 yards, 6.7 yards per carry), a dependable big-play runner who doubles as a very dangerous return men – though he may see fewer touches on special teams thanks to his added workload in the running game. Williams will be asked to recoup some mammoth production: Robert Turbin and Michael Smith combined for 2,387 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2011.
Williams is not a horse – he’s not like Turbin, who was a machine of an every-down back. In a perfect world, Williams is the burner to a teammate’s hammer. So while U.S.U. can count on a solid year from the senior, it does need to find at least one complimentary option. It was thought that true freshman Tavarreon Dickerson could fill that role, but he left the program during the spring. Perhaps the best pick to serve with Williams is Robert Marshall, a 231-pound junior who has rushed for 207 yards over the last two years. He could help U.S.U. maintain some toughness between the tackles. Sophomore Joe Hill will also have a role, even if he’s similar to Williams in size, stature and running style.
The third task: get a little more punch at wide receiver. The Aggies bring back a good slice of last year’s two-deep, but the offense will need to find a big-play threat to replace Stanley Morrison. That role might be filled by junior Travis Van Leeuwen (15 catches for 214 yards), whose 14.9-yard per catch average ranked second on the team last fall, behind Morrison. The top two will be seniors Chuck Jacobs (20 for 218) and Matt Austin (34 for 465); Jacobs, a former JUCO transfer, will be far more comfortable in his second season in this offense, while Austin’s year took off once Kennedy moved into the lineup.
The Aggies don’t necessarily need a clear top receiver, but they do need overall consistency from the position and a dash of explosiveness. Austin and Jacobs will carry the water, leading the team in receptions, but U.S.U. needs more out of Van Leeuwen and junior Travis Reynolds – not to mention some immediate playing time from a group that includes JUCO transfers Alex Wheat, Dwayne Lorick and Jordan Jenkins.
The offensive line continues to improve with each passing year. This group is no exception, even if U.S.U. must overcome the loss of two starters. The three returning starters anchor a group that should have its way with most of the WAC, even if the line is still not quite up to the task of handling a team like Utah, which has too much talent along its front seven. As was the case a year ago, senior Oscar Molina-Sanchez will start at left tackle, all-WAC pick Tyler Larsen, a junior, at center, and junior Eric Schultz at right tackle. One of the two open guard spots will go to junior Jamie Markosian, who proved himself as a swing reserve along the interior last fall.
The Aggies signed two JUCO transfers in February; one, Bill Vavau, has the size to slide into a spot at right guard, moving Markosian over to the left side. The second, Patrick Ward, will start his career at tackle.
So, this offense. U.S.U. is going to score points on the WAC. The quarterback pairing is superb. Williams can roll out a 1,000-yard season if he gets some help between the tackles. The receiver corps is steady if unspectacular. The line is improved. The Aggies are going to drop 40-plus points on at least four teams in 2012. Is this offense good enough to move the ball against B.Y.U., Utah or Wisconsin? Whether the Aggies move into the national conversation depends on the answer.
Aranda won’t change much on defense. Why would he? Last year’s group was the program’s first in eight years to allow less than 28.0 points per game – barely, at 27.9 per game – which does indicate that after two years of progress, the Aggies are close to grasping Andersen’s system in its entirety. And while Aranda is calling the plays and doing the day-to-day work with this defense, rest assured that Andersen is going to keep close tabs on this side of the ball. His fingerprints are all over this program as it currently stands, but especially when it comes to this defense.
Each level was dinged by graduation, though none more than linebacker, which I’ll touch on below. The second level lost star-quality players; the front three must replace steady, under-the-radar contributors like Quinn Garner and Levi Koskan – the Aggies’ two starting ends. What the Aggies do return is an all-conference c ontender in senior Al Lapuaho (31 tackles), a former JUCO transfer who stepped right into the starting lineup last fall. But that was on the nose: Lapuaho will move outside in 2012, giving the Aggies far more toughness and size all along the front three but also robbing the line of a proven figure above the center.
So it’s on Aranda, Andersen and defensive line coach Frank Maile to find not only an end to line up opposite of Lapuaho – though it’s important to remember that U.S.U. will use hybrid linebacker-ends to bolster the pass rush – but also a new nose tackle. It’ll be easier to find the latter. The Aggies’ best option inside is likely senior Havea Lasike, the top backup behind Lapuaho a season ago. U.S.U. could land depth from sophomore Tevita Vaifoou, though it remains to be seen whether he remains at tackle or moves outside to end.
What the defense needs at end is some push: not explosiveness, but a strong approach at the point of attack and enough athleticism to take advantage of a one-on-one opportunity on third down. When the season begins in September, Lapuaho’s partner at end will be junior Connor Williams (28 tackles, 2.0 sacks), Garner’s backup a season ago. After making a nice jump as a sophomore, Williams is one new starter to watch along the Aggies’ front seven. One incoming lineman who could make a push for snaps as the year progresses is JUCO transfer Paul Piukala, though he’ll be slowed early while he grasps the system.
Andersen has been wishy-washy in regards to his line – praising one day, deriding the next – and you can see why: U.S.U.’s front three will likely be an issue against the stronger teams on this schedule. In addition, when including the changes at linebacker, you can imagine the front seven taking some time to gel as a group. Much depends on how well Lapuaho adapts to his new role; he has the size and quickness to flourish on the outside. In fact, the line would do well to follow in Lapuaho’s lead – both in his production and the mean streak he brings to the table.
As touched on earlier, U.S.U. was completely and utterly unable to force turnovers in the passing game last fall. The trickle-down effect this has on the Aggies’ overall pass defense is obvious: quarterback can take more chances, knowing that opposing cornerbacks won’t make him pay. Luckily for U.S.U., it’s nearly impossible for a secondary to go two straight seasons with so few forced turnovers – the Aggies did combine for 25 interceptions from 2009-10.
Most of last year’s secondary is back in the fold. The one area where U.S.U. starts from scratch is at free safety, where it lost last year’s starter and leading reserve. The original plan was to move senior McKade Brady (86 tackles), the team’s leading returning tackler, over from strong safety; would-be senior Maurice Alexander would have then moved up from linebacker to fill Brady’s shoes. But Alexander left the program in March, leaving U.S.U. in a bit of a bind. Now, the team’s best option might be to move one of several cornerbacks over to free safety – seniors Quinton Byrd or Will Davis, or perhaps JUCO transfer Devonta Glover-Wright.
It’s up in the air. In all likelihood, U.S.U. can’t afford to move Brady. And whether the Aggies feel comfortable moving a cornerback to safety depends on two factors: one, whether they feel a cornerback can be spared, and two, whether youngsters like Frankie Sutera, Cameron Sanders, Brian Suite or Michael Oknokwo are ready for a starting role at safety. I do feel that U.S.U. has the numbers at cornerback to shuffle a player out to safety, especially with senior Jumanne Robertson (48 tackles) and junior Nevin Lawson (73 tackles) entrenched as starters and Byrd a solid pick at nickel back. Keep your eye on a potential shakeup in the secondary when U.S.U. retakes the field in August.
Position battle(s) to watch
Linebacker The loss of two starters was exacerbated by the offseason departures of two key reserves, Gavin Jones and Alexander – though Alexander was going to get that look at strong safety, to be fair. The Aggies are starting from scratch in the middle without Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher; sadly, Wagner graduated without earning the sort of coast-to-coast recognition his play deserved. Losing this quartet hasn’t exactly crippled U.S.U., because Aranda and Andersen seem to have settled on a starting four. What it has done, however, is strain depth to the point where the Aggies really cannot afford to suffer any serious injuries on the second level.
The new leader is sophomore Tavaris McMillan (45 tackles), a rookie starter at outside linebacker who moves into the middle this fall. Someone needs to replace the lost production; while McMillan isn’t Wagner, he’s good enough – and promising enough – to earn all-conference honors in 2012 and beyond. McMillan will be joined inside by junior Jake Doughty (28 tackles), who spent last season apprenticing behind Wagner and Gallagher. Hopefully, something rubbed off. This pair will be flanked by senior Bojay Filimoeatu (41 tackles, 11.0 for loss) and freshman Kyler Fackrell, who had a great spring.
Filimoeatu spent the majority of last season at end, but he dropped about 20 pounds – down to 245 – to help ease his full-time transition to linebacker. If he can maintain his strength while adding some speed due to the weight loss, Filimoeatu could earn all-WAC honors on the outside. Is this linebacker corps good enough to keep this defense afloat? No question. The group could even avoid a significant decline if McMillan and Doughty carry a strong spring over into September, and if Filimoeatu continues bringing pressure off the edge. This situation isn’t great – but it could absolutely be worse.
Game(s) to watch
The Aggies will meet both B.Y.U. and Utah this fall for the first time since 2009, meaning that the Beehive Boot should have a clear, undisputed winner for the first time since that same year. U.S.U. will reach bowl play thanks to an easy WAC slate, but this team will either make noise or slink into the background based on how it fares during non-conference play. Games with the Cougars and Utes are enormous for this team’s national standing; wins in both, especially since both are early, will put the Aggies in a spot for a 10-win season. Even if all else fails, U.S.U. is winning six games: Southern Utah, U.N.L.V., New Mexico State, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Idaho. The WAC goes through Louisiana Tech; unfortunately, the Aggies meet the Bulldogs in Ruston.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell A bowl berth is absolutely guaranteed. Think about the last time that sentence was uttered in connection with Utah State football. Yeah, keep thinking. What you see in U.S.U. is a potentially dynamic offense, one that should rip through most of the WAC with ease while making things difficult on most opponents during non-conference play. That said, the Aggies do need to make a few decisions. One is at quarterback, where the offense really can’t go wrong – not to imply that it’s not an important decision. Another is at running back, where the Aggies do need to find a complimentary option. In addition, U.S.U. must locate additional speed and explosiveness at receiver while cementing the interior of its offensive line. These aren’t issues that will cripple this team. What’s more troubling are the question marks on defense: the line is a major concern; the linebacker corps can’t afford any injuries, especially in the middle; and the secondary returns a good amount of experience but must do a better job forcing turnovers. All things considered, the baseline for this team is six wins. Again, consider the last time U.S.U. entered a season with a baseline of bowl eligibility. The ceiling is 10 wins and a WAC title. The Aggies are capable of getting there, but it does take a strain in optimism to imagine such a scenario coming to pass. More likely, U.S.U. wins at least seven games for the second straight year but probably doesn’t get past eight – with losses to B.Y.U., Utah, Wisconsin and Louisiana Tech. Yes, the Bulldogs are the best team in the WAC. But the Aggies can make things interesting by addressing a few of the personnel concerns still in play as they prepare for fall camp.
Dream season Utah State wins the Beehive Boot, sweeping both Utah and B.Y.U., and also tops Louisiana Tech in November. As you’d think, such a scenario would leave the Aggies with 10 regular season wins for the first time since… ever.
Nightmare season The Aggies are shocked by U.N.L.V. and Idaho and steamrolled by B.Y.U., Wisconsin, Utah and Louisiana Tech. A seventh loss comes to New Mexico State. With this schedule, anything less than six wins would be a major disappointment.
In case you were wondering
Where do Utah State fans congregate? I asked for help with Utah State sites in last year’s preview, and the readers delivered. Now, in addition to just Scout U State, I can list the following: the Web sites of the Deseret News and The Utah Statesman, the latter the school’s fine newspaper, and the message board at USUFans.com, which is the best option of the bunch. If there are more, please list them below.
Utah State’s all-name nominee LB Jefferson Court.
Through 58 teams 222,541.
Who is No. 66? Tomorrow’s program has never won more than 14 games over the span of two consecutive seasons during the modern era of college football. That is since 1936, as you know.
Tags: Adam Kennedy, Al Lapuaho, Bojay Filimoeatu, Chuck Jacobs, Chuckie Keeton, Connor Williams, Dave Aranda, Gary Andersen, Jake Doughty, Jumanne Robertson, Kerwynn Williams, Matt Austin, Matt Wells, McKade Brady, Mike Sanford, Mountain West, Nevin Lawson, Paul Piukala, Tavaris McMillan, Travis Van Leeuwen, Tyler Larsen, Utah State, WAC
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