<strong>LOGAN—</strong> It’s been a long time since the Utah State football team was involved in a discussion about whether or not it was the best program in the state. The Aggies will have a chance to answer that question emphatically when they take on the BYU Cougars in Provo Friday.
“I think we’ve made it bigger than it has ever been after beating Utah and SUU, so it gives us a chance to take Utah. We can be the best team in Utah, and I think everybody knows that,” senior linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu said.
Friday’s game – which has a late start, but will be televised nationally on ESPN – will feature two of the top 11 defenses, statistically, in the nation. The Cougars are led by an extremely talented linebacker group that may be one of the best in the nation.
“They’re very, very stout inside and very athletic on the edges. It’s probably the best group of linebackers we’ve seen since Wisconsin, but maybe overall when you count all four of them, as good as anybody we’ll see possibly all year,” said USU offensive coordinator and former quarterback Matt Wells.
Linebackers Brandon Ogletree, Spencer Hadley, and Kyle Van Noy lead an aggressive BYU defense that has recorded 41 tackles for loss and 17 sacks on the season. Ogletree leads the Cougars with 47 tackles on the year, while Van Noy has tallied up 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on a defense that is only giving up 226.6 yards per game.
The Aggies aren’t unfamiliar with solid defenses, as they have faced off against Utah (No. 29) and Wisconsin (No. 39) already this season. However, USU did struggle somewhat offensively in those games, scoring only two offensive touchdowns in regulation against both the Utes and Badgers. BYU will be an even tougher test, for an Aggie offense that racked up 564 yards of total offense against UNLV last week.
As good as the BYU defense has been this season, the Cougar offense has been equally bad. The BYU offense is ranked No. 64 in the country, and even that ranking is greatly aided by the 540 yards of total offense the Cougars put up against a horrendous Hawaii defense last week.
Prior to the Hawaii game, BYU, which is now averaging 402 yards of offense per game, was only averaging 367.5 yards through their first four games. Had that held true through week five, the Cougars would be ranked No. 89 in the country out of 120 schools, instead of No. 64.
That offense has been led by former USU quarterback Riley Nelson, but a back injury caused him to struggle in games against Utah and Boise State. He was eventually pulled at the end of the Boise State game in favor of freshman Taysom Hill. Hill also started against the Warriors last week, and has been predominately a running quarterback as he is now the teams’ leading rusher.
With a week off to heal, it is uncertain whether or not Nelson will be back against the Aggies, or whether Hill will start once again.
“They kind of caught some mojo, if you will, on the offensive side of the ball. The offense to me doesn’t drastically change with Riley (Nelson) not being there. Both quarterbacks are good quarterbacks. We will prepare the same way for both quarterbacks,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “There is a little bit more option face possibly now if Riley does not play because it’s a healthy quarterback (Hill) that can run very well. I guess he’s been back from a mission for a year, so it’s not like he is an 18 year-old kid running around out there.”
The Aggies, meanwhile, seem to be hitting their stride. Sophomore QB Chuckie Keeton is coming off a career-high 402 yard, four touchdown passing performance, while senior running back Kerwynn Williams has posted back-to-back 100 yard games. With some early injuries along the offensive line, there was some early problems, but that unit seems to be gelling as well. All-WAC center Tyler Larsen is expected to play after missing some of the UNLV game with an ankle injury.
“Watching their quarterbacks, I think we have the upper hand with Chuckie,” Filimoeatu said. “Chuckie is a great pocket passer, but when he needs to he’ll turn it on. Looking at them, it looks like they just want to run first, so our D-line has to be disciplined, and our coverage has to be on the spot.”
So far this season, the biggest problem the USU offense has had may be itself. The Aggies have struggled with both turnovers and penalties, losing the turnover battle in all but one game. That is something they can’t do if they want to beat BYU in Provo for the first time since 1978.
“It’s something that you’re going to have to avoid to be in a big game, and this is going to be a big game. It’s got two really, really good defensive teams, and I think two offenses that are capable of putting some points on the board,” Wells said. “In those kind of games, you have to take care of the ball, you have to minimize penalties, and you have to score when you get an opportunity in the red zone – you have to score touchdowns.”
The second half, specifically the third quarter, has been the bugger for USU when it comes to turnovers. A third quarter fumble against the Utes let them back into that game, and the Aggies have opened the second half of each of their past two games with back to back turnovers. However, unlike last year, the USU defense has been able to hold and even looks forward to the challenge.
“Antonio Pearce told me once when he came down to my JC, ‘If the offense is lagging and they keep on turning it over, three-and-out, three-and-out, then that’s your opportunity to get better, your opportunity to shine.’ I took that to heart, and I guess this defense is the same across the board – we want to be out there,” Filimoeatu said. “So when you see us take the field, we’re always like, ‘Yeah,’ and shaking our heads, we want this. It’s better than last year. Last year we were just hanging our heads down … but this year, I think we want that pressure. We want the pressure to be on us.”
The Aggies will certainly have plenty of pressure Friday night on a national stage as they try to knock off the Cougars for the second time in three years.