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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 90: Utah State

In 2010, Utah State hopes to give the Beehive State three competitive programs.

Things are looking up for Utah State. Really. Head coach Gary Anderson was able to achieve in his first season what many — if not most — of his predecessors failed to do, often miserably: put a competitive product on the field. Gone were the 24 losses by double digits over Brent Guy’s final three seasons, replaced by five losses by a touchdown or less in 2009. When you’ve had only two winning seasons in 20 years, such progress is exciting. Up next: six wins, bowl eligibility. Yikes.

Conference
WAC

Location
Logan, Utah

Nickname
Aggies

Returning starters
17 (8 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 115

2009 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 100

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Oklahoma
  • Sept. 11
    Idaho St.
  • Sept. 18
    Fresno St.
  • Sept. 25
    at San Diego St.
  • Oct. 1
    B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Oct. 23
    Hawaii
  • Oct. 30
    at Nevada
  • Nov. 6
    New Mexico St.
  • Nov. 13
    at San Jose St.
  • Nov. 20
    Idaho
  • Dec. 4
    at Boise St.

Last year’s prediction

Some Aggie fans may expect more than three wins in 2009, and that is certainly possible: This is as talented as the Aggies have been in many years. However, though I respect Gary Anderson and acknowledge the returning experience on the Aggie roster, I can’t see this team doing any better than the three-win total of a season ago. In what games, outside of Idaho, N.M.S.U. and possibly San Jose State, will U.S.U. be favored? Crazier things have happened, but I predict Utah State to finish either 3-9 or 4-8. This is a young team, and will be better in 2010 and beyond.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Utah State remained poor on defense, Anderson’s area of expertise, but was often bailed out by perhaps the finest offense in school history. While the 1997 and 1993 Aggies scored more points, no U.S.U. team in school history was quite as balanced: 192.6 yards per game on the ground, 20th nationally, and 246.8 yards through the air, 36th nationally. Combine a powerful running game with last year’s surprisingly effective passing attack, and you get the 12th-best offense in all of college football. Up next: maintaining the offensive production, adding in a dash of defensive fortitude. Seventeen returning starters? It can be done.

High point Victories in two of its last three to end the season. The Aggies went 3-3 from Oct. 24 on, with one loss – by 31-27 at Fresno State – coming despite a 27-17 halftime lead.

Low point The one that got away: a 20-17 defeat at New Mexico State on Oct. 10. Utah State outgained N.M.S.U. by 199 yards, held quarterback Trevor Walls to 8 of 25 passing and racked up 258 yards rushing. All New Mexico State had in its favor was the penalty margin, which saw U.S.U. flagged 12 times for 125 yards.

Tidbit Utah State was one of 39 F.B.S. schools, and one of only 15 among the non-B.C.S. conferences, to graduate at least 75 percent of their seniors in 2009. Among the non-B.C.S. conference schools, U.S.U. was joined by Air Force, Army, U.C.F., Marshall, Memphis, Miami (Ohio), Navy, New Mexico, Northern Illinois, Rice, Southern Mississippi, T.C.U., Troy and Tulane. Most importantly, Utah State was the lone WAC school to crack the 75 percent barrier, as well as the lone school in the state of Utah to do so.

Tidbit (ball control edition) Despite its strong running game, Utah State won the time of possession battle only three times last fall: against Texas A&M, Fresno State and Hawaii. There’s a simple explanation for this, one I’m sure you’ve already gathered. Even though the Aggies were better in 2009, they often trailed in the second half of games; that led to opponents running the ball more, milking the clock, while forcing U.S.U. into passing situations.

Tidbit (road woes edition) The Aggies dropped six of seven games on the road last fall, giving it a five-year road mark of 4-29. Utah State will play six away games in 2010.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 S James Brindley (Seattle), CB Jarrett Bush (Green Bay), DE John Chick (Indianapolis), TE Chris Cooley (Washington), S De’Von Hall (Tampa Bay), OG Shawn Murphy (Tampa Bay), TE Rob Myers (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Former N.F.L. players turned actors
1. Carl Weathers.
2. Alex Karras.
3. Brian Bosworth.
4. Merlin Olsen.
5. Don Gibb.

Coaching

Gary Anderson (Utah ’86), 4-8 after a single season in Logan. As noted earlier, while Utah State did not make a drastic improvement in the win column, the Aggies were far more competitive than in recent years. Anderson 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). Anderson’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 head coaching sabbatical, Anderson returned to Utah, first as defensive line coach (2004) before being promoted to assistant head coach and defensive coordinator (2005-8). On paper, Anderson seems like a good fit for the Aggies. For starters, he brings a well-regarded defensive background to a program desperately in need of an overhaul. He has a strong familiarity with the area, something Guy did not have. Anderson also brings strong recruiting acumen to his new stop; he was 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 Anderson should begin to bring in a higher level of talent. My only question is this: does Anderson have the fortitude to build this program from the bottom up? Last year marked a solid start.

Players to watch

Let’s start with the bad news. Utah State will be without the services of running back Robert Turbin, whose torn A.C.L. will keep him out of action until at least October. Make no mistake: this is very bad news. Turbin may have been the finest back in the WAC a year ago, when he rushed for 1,296 yards and added another 30 receptions for 418 yards through the air. He also notched 18 touchdowns to top the WAC. Few backs in school history have matched his abilities as both a rusher and receiver; as I said, a big loss. There are options behind Turbin, each of whom are capable of keeping his seat warm through the first month of this season, if not until 2011. Both seniors Michael Smith and Derrvin Speight rushed for at least 210 yards on at least 5.0 yards per carry last fall as Turbin’s understudies. Whether each was able to rack up such totals as a result of Turbin loosening up a defense remains to be seen. In a best case scenario, Turbin returns in mid-October at full strength. I wouldn’t bank on that happening. Regardless, the senior duo can keep the run game humming.

Quarterback Diondre Borel will do his part. The senior, entering his third season as the starter, rushed for 458 yards and 6 scores last fall, both totals good for second on the team. Borel also took a sizable step forward as a passer in 2009: 2,885 yards passing with 17 touchdowns against 4 picks, compared to 1,705 yards with 11 scores and 10 picks in 2008. He’ll make another improvement in 2010, and with Turbin out, become the unquestioned leader of the offense.

His favorite target will again be the diminutive sophomore receiver Stanley Morrison, whose lack of size will deceive you; he certainly deceived the WAC in 2009. While he entered the season with little fanfare — no pun intended — Morrison led the Aggies in receptions (33), receiving yards (616) and touchdowns (7), as well as in yards per reception (18.7). He’ll likely draw far more attention from opposing defenses in 2010, forcing fellow underclassmen like Eric Moats (27 catches for 400 yards), Mikhail Morgan (12 for 111) and Austin Adler to help pick up the slack. The Aggies lost three of their top five receivers from last fall, so this position is a bit of a concern.

Experience is not a question on the offensive line. U.S.U. brings back four starters from a season ago, losing only center Brennan McFadden. His loss does sting, however, even if Anderson and his staff are very high on redshirt freshman Tyler Larsen, his replacement. Senior left tackle Spencer Johnson, a 31-game starter over his career, becomes the star of this offensive line. Joining him on the left side is another senior, Tariq Polley, who started eight games at right tackle last fall. Philip Gapelu will again man the left guard spot, while junior Tanner Richins returns at right tackle after starting the final three games of 2009.

The defense must get better if Utah State plans to take that next step. It will help to have the services of junior outside linebacker Bobby Wagner, whose healthy mix of size and speed makes him one of the WAC’s best. Wagner was a first-team all-conference selection last fall, thanks to his 115-tackle (8 for loss), 2-interception season. Anderson uses him very well — in a number of ways — which plays to his sizable strengths. He can only do so much, however, and the Aggies will need to find better play from its remaining two starting linebackers. One will be new to the position: Junior Keiaho will move to the strong side after starting at end a year ago. We won’t know if Keiaho takes to the spot until the Aggies take the field in September. Another former defensive lineman, senior Devin Johnson, makes the move to middle linebacker, but it will be difficult for him to unseat incumbent starter Kyle Gallagher (53 tackles, 1.5 sacks).

Seniors abound in the secondary. Both cornerbacks are fourth-year players: Chris Randle and Curtis Marsh. Randle is the closest to a sure thing Utah State has in the defensive backfield. Marsh, a former running back, has the athletic ability to excel at cornerback but, as expected, has yet to put his complete game together. If Marsh continues to scuffle, the Aggies can turn to sophomore Quinton Byrd. Senior Rajric Coleman has the free safety spot tied down after making 72 tackles and 2 interceptions in 2009. Like Randle, Coleman has all-WAC potential. There’s competition at strong safety, where juniors Walter McClenton and Jamaine Olson and senior Joey Schrader have each made a claim to the starting role. None are proven, though McClenton was an important reserve last fall, even starting one game.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line Plenty of movement up front, mostly due to position changes. The group does return three starters — Nathan Royster, Sean Enesi and Quinn Garner — but loses the services of Keiaho, now a linebacker. On the flip side, senior Maxim Dinka Mba will move down from linebacker to end, where he’ll serve in a pass rushing role. In addition, Royster will move to end after starting at tackle a season ago. While it would be surprising not to see Royster grab a starting role on the edge, Utah State has been very happy with the play of redshirt freshman D.J. Tialavea, who stands second on the depth chart. Former Utah transfer Page Clifford is another option. Senior Daniel Gurrola is penciled into the starting lineup on the nose, though it’s hard to count out fellow senior Casey Davis, who redshirted last season. Perhaps the only returning starter assured of remaining in the starting lineup is Enesi; even Garner has been supplanted — for now — by junior Levi Koskan. Perhaps it’s not too much of a shock to see Koskan leapfrog the returning starter: he may have only started one game a year ago, but Koskan tied Keiaho for the team lead with three sacks.

Game(s) to watch

Boise State on Dec. 4. Why not? Perhaps Boise will enter that game undefeated, needing only a win against historically lowly U.S.U. to earn an unprecedented trip to the B.C.S. title game. If that’s the case, the broadcast will draw the largest television crowd ever for a game featuring Utah State. In all seriousness, Utah State must win four of five against the following teams if its hopes to reach bowl eligibility: Idaho State, San Diego State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and San Jose State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This could be the year for Utah State. Emphasis on “could,” of course. I think I should preface my following remarks by saying I don’t believe the Aggies will reach bowl play in 2010. Yet I do firmly believe this to be the best team Utah State has put forth in nearly 15 years. There’s a lot to like, particularly on offense. The backfield, with the combination of Borel, Smith and Speight, rivals any corresponding trio in the WAC. The team will dearly miss Turbin, unfortunately. The offensive line is solid, both as run blockers and in pass protection. There is no reason to think that U.S.U. will suffer any drop-off in offensive production; if anything, this group will be improved. The key, of course, is getting an improved performance from the defense. The good news here is the return of eight starters, even if this unit was sub par a season ago. Bowl hopes hinge on this improvement. As noted, much will be determined in how the Aggies perform against the five teams they face with a comparable talent level. Win four of those five, and all it will take is wins over, say, Hawaii and Idaho to reach six wins. Can it happen? Without question: this is, as stated, the best Utah State squad in years. However, I feel safer in predicting a one-win improvement: five wins would mark another progression for a program accustomed to stepping back, not forward.

Dream season It takes Anderson only two years: 8-4, 6-2 in the WAC, and in bowl play for the first time since 1997.

Nightmare season A slide back to 2-10 would be horrible for a program and fan base expecting a sizable improvement.

In case you were wondering

Where do Utah State fans congregate? I’ve been asking for your help on nearly a daily basis. This is why: I can’t do it alone. I feel like Mike Rowe as the credits roll on “Dirty Jobs.” All I could find for Utah State is its Scout site, Scout U State. There has to be more. If you’re a Utah State fan, give me your favorite stops in the comment field below.

Up Next

Who is No. 89? Later, nineties. Our next university is currently constructing a new basketball arena. The arena is named after a former school trustee who shares his name with a Detroit-area brewing company famous for its cheap, often delicious beer. Deliciousness depends on thirst level or state of inebriation at the time.

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Comments

  1. James says:

    How can you have a list of football players-turned-actors and skip Jim Brown?

  2. Sterling says:

    Where do Aggies congregate?

    http://blogs.sltrib.com/usu/index.php

    http://www.deseretnews.com/sports/usu/

    ksl.com (However, this site is heavily tainted with religious-like adherence to, and support of, BYU football.)

  3. CodingAggieBlue says:

    The Scout site is definitely the first place to go for discussion. And the Trib and DesNews links are ideal for up-to-date info (certainly better than what the University itself puts out).

    http://blueaggies.com/ is also good for recruit info and insightful analysis.

  4. ViAggie says:

    we’re all hard at work, so Aggie fans have a hard time maintaining anything other than the scout site. It’s not bad, it’s home and has been from the time scout started. So yea, that’s about it.

  5. Adam says:

    Don’t forget the Utah Statesman website (the school paper). Weekly articles this summer in leadup to the season, and expanded football coverage. This is what happens when a longtime football only writer takes control of the sports section at a school long known for basketball.

    http://www.usustatesman.com/

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