Sitting at 3-4 with five games left in the season, the Utah State football team will have its work cut out in order to right the ship and make a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
The first task comes Saturday when the Aggies travel to Albuquerque to face New Mexico.
“It will be a big challenge, one that is similar to Air Force only in the fact that they run it a lot,” USU head coach Matt Wells said. “The challenge for our whole team is to bounce back from back-to-back losses and go on the road against a Mountain West opponent, and to be able to stay in the race and the bowl hunt and all that goes within that.”
The Lobos boast the nation’s second-best rushing attack, averaging 349.3 yards per game. Spearheading that attack is senior running back Kasey Carrier, who has amassed 789 yards on 132 carries this season and has scored eight touchdowns.
“He runs with balance, his lower body is strong, and he’s shifty,” Wells said. “He’s got a good first step and he runs with balance. He’s a really good receiver out of the backfield.”
Last week against the Broncos, the Aggies allowed Jay Ajayi to rush for 109 yards on 22 carries, an average of five yards per carry. So far this season, Carrier has averaged six yards per carry. Lobo quarterback Cole Gautsche has also produced on the ground, having rushed for 516 yards and six touchdowns.
But despite both players being ranked in the top 25 nationally, USU senior defensive tackle AJ Pataiali’i said the defense is up for the challenge.
“Their offensive line has pretty good size up front, but it comes down to our technique on the defensive line to be stout and stop the run. That’s our goal as a defensive whole, to stop the run every game. Week-in-and-week-out we’ve got to stop the run to give ourselves a chance to win games on Saturday.”
Gautsche has also thrown for four touchdowns and thrown just one interception, but the Lobos passing attack is ranked 122nd in the country with an average of 93.2 yards per game.
For USU, issues with depth have hurt the Aggies on offense with four starters having suffered season-ending injuries.
“I’ve got concerns at every position,” Wells said. “We’re thin at every position – O-Line, quarterback and running back. The only group that’s pretty healthy right now is all the wide outs. I’ve got a lot of concerns.”
Wells named Darell Garretson starter for Saturday’s game, and said he’s excited to see what the freshman can do.
“He struggled a little bit with the first couple series, but I thought he gained composure and played well down the stretch,” Wells said. “In that last drive, there are a lot of pluses to that for him. I thought he was pretty calm from a communication standpoint with the plays and the signals. I thought he carried himself well and I’m excited about seeing what he’ll do this week.”
The Aggies travel to New Mexico for a 4 p.m. kickoff on Saturday in what will be a homecoming of sorts for Wells, who served in two different coaching capacities at New Mexico from 2007-08 and in 2010.
“We’ve got friends there and (my son) Wyatt was born there, so it will be neat to go see some of that,” Wells said. “But this is a business trip. We’re going there to compete and win a ball game and stay on track for some of our goals here. It’s different than going to a stadium you’ve never been to.”