LOGAN – This is a crucial moment for Utah State football.
After emerging from a brutal five-game stretch to open the season, the Aggies stand at 3-2. While it certainly is a tad disheartening that USU was again unable to claim that vaunted road win over a P5 team, this is basically exactly where we expected the Aggies to be at this point of the season. Road losses to Wake Forest and LSU are not red flags for any program, and they do not impede USU’s ultimate goal for this season: a Mountain West title.
The next few weeks very well might. At 2-0 in conference play, already having disposed of San Diego State and Colorado State, Utah State’s path to a showdown with Boise State is clearly visible. Get past a (tough) gauntlet of Nevada, Air Force, Fresno State, and Wyoming and the Aggies will earn a rematch of last season’s division-deciding matchup, only this time the battle would move to Logan. Since the schedule’s announcement in the spring, that has been USU’s goal: get another chance versus the Broncos.
To Boise’s credit, the Broncos have marched largely unimpeded to setting up that showdown with wins over Air Force and Hawaii in recent weeks, and now face a road game at San Jose State and two home games versus Wyoming and New Mexico. Through the first half of the season, Boise State has again reaffirmed themselves as the class of the MW and the major player in the conference’s title race.
Now it’s USU’s turn to do the same. All the talk of USU never winning the big game disappears with a win over Boise State to claim a division title. But that opportunity never presents itself if the Aggies trip up in the weeks leading up to that November clash. That starts this week versus Nevada.
It’s difficult to get an accurate reading on the Wolf Pack this season. An opening-weekend victory over Purdue signaled to the rest of the conference that Nevada aimed to be a serious contender for the West division crown. A 77-6 drubbing at the hands of Oregon suggested otherwise. A 54-3 shellacking from Hawaii confirmed it. A 41-38 win over an improved SJSU team shows that a game versus Nevada is not an unofficial bye, but this is not a game the Aggies should let remain close.
The Wolf Pack have struggled for consistency on both sides of the ball, averaging 23.3 points per game on offense and allowing 39 points per game on defense, both of which rank in the bottom 30 in the country. Toa Taua is a legitimately threatening running back who is on pace for well over 1,000 yards from scrimmage on the season. A receiving corps led by Elijah Cooks, Romeo Doubs, and Kaleb Fossum has the talent to cause problems for opposing secondaries (a matchup that Utah State needs to prove it can handle). All told, Nevada’s offense has a great deal of firepower when things fully click.
The issue for the Wolf Pack is that things have rarely clicked this season, particularly at quarterback. Following the departure of senior QB Ty Gangi last season, Nevada is still searching for a full-time replacement. Redshirt freshman Carson Strong earned the starting nod to start the season and immediately proved why against Purdue, throwing for nearly 300 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in Nevada’s upset victory. Since then, Strong has struggled through injuries and poor play, going 50 of 83 for 434 yards with no TDs and five INTs (299 of those yards also came against FCS Weber State).
With Strong struggling and sitting out due to injury versus UTEP, Nevada has searched for answers via senior Cristian Solano and junior transfer Malik Henry of Last Chance U fame. Neither has shined as of yet. Solano has thrown for 241 yards with two TDs and two INTs across two games, adding an additional 132 yards on the ground. Henry, given the start versus SJSU, threw for 353 yards and a TD but with two picks. Henry seems to be the starter going forward, with Strong as the backup. If things get out of hand, however, Nevada is liable to play up to three different QBs to try to find an offensive rhythm.
For Utah State, this game serves as an opportunity to reconfigure and reignite what has been an underwhelming offense to this point. Nevada ranks in the bottom 10 of all of FBS with 297 passing yards allowed per game. The Wolf Pack are opportunistic, intercepting seven passes on the season, but average only 1.33 sacks per contest and have registered the MW’s second worst team passing efficiency defense behind only New Mexico. If Jordan Love is to improve upon his start to the 2019 campaign, Saturday represents one of his best chances to do so.
The Aggies are currently 21-point favorites. ESPN’s FPI Matchup Predictor gives the Aggies a 94.2 percent chance of victory. A loss on Saturday would be cause to pull the fire alarm on USU’s season. A struggling offense should get back on track, and a defense should have plenty of opportunities to showcase itself versus an inconsistent quarterback and offense. Utah State is currently on a nine-game home winning streak, outscoring opponents by 36.8 points per game over that stretch. Saturday should fall largely in line with that trend.
Utah State’s last home loss? A 41-14 loss to Boise State in 2017. All the Aggies want is another chance at the Broncos with the division title on the line. Saturday is the next step towards making that happen.