<strong>LOGAN—</strong>Believe it or not, it’s the midway point of the 2012 football season. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the Utah State Aggies and see how they have graded out at this point in the season.
Things are certainly positive as USU sits at 4-2 through six games – its best start in decades. However, the Aggies are five points and a couple of plays away from being undefeated at 6-0, so there is plenty to improve upon as well.
</strong> Sophomore Chuckie Keeton is a talented and dynamic quarterback. Were it not for his performance in the Aggies game against Utah, there is a good chance USU would have lost that game. He has been much better at hanging in the pocket this year – sometimes passing up open running lanes – and has improved as a passer.
However, Keeton has tried to force the issue in a few games and that has led to a couple of interceptions. He has also missed a few throws, both on deep balls and screen passes, where the Aggies had a chance to pick up a first down and even score. Keeton has struggled in USU’s toughest road games as well – though some of his struggles can be attributed to offensive line problems. Overall, he is having a solid season as he ranks No. 29 in the country with total offense (285.67 yards per game), but has room for improvement.
<strong>RUNNING BACKS: B</strong>
Kerwynn Williams has taken over the starting role admirably for the departed Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, but he has had a bit of an up and down season up to this point. After a slow start to the season, Williams erupted for a 205 yard rushing performance at Colorado State and then returned home to pile up 260 total yards (rushing and receiving) in USU’s Homecoming game over UNLV.
On the ground though, Williams has basically been a non-factor in the Aggies two road losses, as he rushed for only 61 yards on 30 carries (2.03 yards per carry) in those two games. Williams’ backup, Joe Hill, has looked good in spurts, but completely disappears for games and missed part of the UNLV game and all of the BYU game with injury. Hill has been a bit of a touchdown machine when he does get the opportunities. He’s had a total of 22 touches on the season (15 carries, 7 receptions) and has scored five touchdowns – that is a TD every 4.4 times he touches the ball.
Robert Marshall appears to have moved into the No. 3 running back slot and is actually third on the team behind Williams and Keeton with 17 rushes. He and the other running backs, however, have not had much of an impact though through six games.
<strong>RECEIVERS</strong>: <strong> C</strong>
While the Aggies planned on maintaining a heavy rushing attack in 2012, it was no secret they wanted and expected to air it out more. With returning leading receiver Matt Austin back for his senior year and speedster Chuck Jacobs also a threat, the USU passing attack was supposed to be much more potent than it has been so far this season.
Austin has been a TD machine in the red zone, but he has battled double coverage in pretty much every game and hasn’t been able to put up consistent numbers. Jacobs exploded for one big game against UNLV, but has struggled with dropped balls and ball security.
Meanwhile, receivers that were expected to step up and contribute this season have had minimal roles. Travis Van Leeuwen looked very good in spring and fall camp, but so far that hasn’t really translated to games. Cam Webb and Travis Reynolds have been hit or miss, and speedy freshman JoJo Natson, who generated a lot of buzz in fall camp, hasn’t had the impact many expected.
The leading receiver for Utah State through six games is Kerwynn Williams, and that right there tells the story of the USU receiving corps this season. There is plenty of talent at the position, but production definitely needs to pick up from that group over the second half of the season.
<strong>TIGHT ENDS: B+</strong>
The tight end group appeared to be one of the deepest and most solid units the Aggies had heading into the season, and they have not disappointed. Kellen Bartlett has returned from an injury that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season to lead the group in receptions. He is third on the team with 19 catches, and scored a touchdown in the overtime win over Utah.
DJ Tialavea missed the first couple of games for the Aggies as he recovered from a knee injury he sustained in the fall. He has returned to play well during the past few games. He hasn’t been involved in the passing game all that much, but he did make a nice touchdown catch against UNLV and at 270 pounds is a big asset – pun intended – in the running game.
Keegan Andersen has only made one catch on the year, but has seen his time limited with the emergence of Bartlett. Andersen had a solid camp, has played well in limited minutes, and is more than an adequate replacement should anything happen to the two main players at the position.
<strong>OFFENSIVE LINE: B-</strong>
With three returning starters, and another returning player with a lot of experience, the USU offensive front was expected to be solid this season. Some injuries, including a likely season-ending one for Oscar Molina-Sanchez, have caused shuffling on the line, which in turn has caused some problems in games.
The big defensive fronts of Wisconsin and BYU especially caused the Aggies some problems, which played a major role in the offensive ineptitude of Utah State in those games. The unit seems to be improving and has had some great performances against weaker competition, but will need to continue to improve as the Aggies move into conference play.
The time that Keeton has in the passing game and the space that Williams has to run through all revolves around this unit. With the appropriate amount of time, the USU offense has shown the ability to be very explosive. There was not a senior to be found along the entire offensive front the Aggies started against BYU, so there is certainly plenty of room for growth and improvement in this group.
<strong>DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
</strong> What a difference a year makes. USU head coach Gary Andersen rode this unit hard from spring ball all through the fall, and they have responded in a big way. Last season, the Aggies had a hard time getting off the field and struggled late in games as their best players wore down. Not only does USU have better talent on the defensive line across the board than they’ve had in the past, but they also have unprecedented depth.
Senior Al Lapuaho is improved this year, while freshmen Travis Seefeldt and Jordan Nielsen have both performed better than expected. Havea Lasike is another senior that has stepped up, and the silent leader of the group is junior defensive end Connor Williams. AJ Pataiali’i, Paul Piukala, and B.J. Larsen have all been instrumental in the Aggies success up front as well.
The Aggies rank inside the top-20 nationally in nearly all statistical categories, and just outside at No. 23 in rush defense. The play of the defensive line is a big reason Utah State is having so much success on the defensive side of the ball this season.
Simply put, this unit has been dominant this season. Despite the loss of second round pick Bobby Wagner and playmaker Kyle Gallagher, this unit has emerged as possibly the best – offense or defense – that USU has.
After playing along the defensive line a season ago, senior Bojay Filimoeatu is back to a more comfortable position at outside linebacker. He is also at a more comfortable playing weight, which has allowed him to be a lot more disruptive this season. Sophomore Tavaris McMillian provides great depth and allows the Aggies to stay fresh at outside backer as well.
At the inside backer spots, Zach Vigil has emerged as a terror for opposing offenses, while Jake Doughty has been equally vicious. Redshirt freshman Kyler Fackrell has been another surprise at the other outside backer spot. All four of USU’s starting linebackers are in the top six spots on the team in tackles, and they have a combined 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
<strong>DEFENSIVE BACKS: B</strong>
Returning the most experienced defensive backfield in the Western Athletic Conference, there were a lot of high expectations for the USU DBs in 2012. While the group has definitely played well – the Aggies are ranked No. 23 in the nation in pass defense – there have also been some mistakes that have hurt USU.
As expected, McKade Brady has been a force during his senior season as he leads USU in tackles. At the other safety spot, sophomore Brian Suite is living up to his preseason hype as he is third on the team in tackles and has recorded four pass breakups.
At the corner spots, senior Willie Davis has emerged as the Aggies lockdown corner and has had a very good year so far. Opposite Davis, junior Nevin Lawson and senior Jumanne Robertson have each seen time, though Lawson has seen the majority. Lawson has struggled some with playing the ball in the air and pass interference penalties, though some of that is because of the type of defense the Aggies play.
Rashard Stewart, Terrence Alston, and Frankie Sutera have all seen plenty of time for USU as well. What the Aggies have struggled with this year is big, playmaking receivers – as was evident in the Utah and BYU games – and causing turnovers. As a team, USU has only recorded three interceptions on the season, despite having multiple opportunities for more.
<strong>SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
</strong> Obviously there have been some glaring special teams issues for the Aggies – can anyone kick a field goal – but as whole, the unit hasn’t been all bad for USU. Minus one rough game at Wisconsin, Tyler Bennett has been superb as a punter as he is averaging 43.2 yards per kick and 19 of his 36 kicks have pinned USU’s opponent inside the 20 yard line.
USU’s kickoff unit has been much better this year as well. The Aggies have tallied 10 touchbacks on 27 kicks, and have covered well when teams decide to bring the ball out. The punt coverage has been pretty solid as well – again minus one rough game as Wisconsin. It’s no secret, however, that place kicking has been a bit of an adventure for the Aggies. Missed field goals certainly aren’t the only reasons USU has lost two games – there were many plays in both that could have led to a win – but the fact remains that if USU were 2-0 on 37-yard field goals in 2012 instead of 0-2, there’s a good chance they would be undefeated.
</strong> Andersen recently signed a contract extension through the 2018 season that could end up paying him more than three-quarters of a million dollars. That may seem like a lot, but it is still well below the other two FBS coaches in the state and near the bottom of the Mountain West (the conference USU will join after this season). What may be more important, is that Utah State was able to increase the salaries for USU’s assistant coaches to be more competitive with the Aggies’ competition.
There have been some questionable coaching decisions through the first six games, especially in the play-calling department, but USU is breaking in a first-time offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator, so there are bound to be some growing pains. Overall, it is clear that Utah State is headed in the right direction as a program, and a very big reason for that is coaching.
</strong> With the history of Utah State football over the past couple decades, it’s hard to be disappointed with a 4-2 start, a win over Utah, and an undefeated home record. Realistically, it’s also hard to be disappointed with a two point road loss at Wisconsin and a three point road loss at BYU. The fact that disappointment is the common emotion among fans and players speaks volumes about how far Andersen has brought this program.
USU’s final six games are all against conference opponents, and the WAC is having a great swan song as Louisiana Tech (5-0), UTSA (5-0), San Jose State (4-1), and Utah State (4-2) are all making some noise. The Bulldogs are currently nationally ranked, the Spartans receiving votes, and the Aggies received a vote in the rankings earlier this season. That sets up for an exciting finish for what will likely be the final WAC football champion.
The Aggies must eliminate some mistakes that have plagued them all season, particularly penalties and turnovers, but have a great chance to achieve their goal of a WAC title if they do.