LOGAN – Last year’s college football season was far from normal, especially for Utah State. The problems started early and the losses piled up. Now, the team’s new coach is trying to get the team back to its winning ways.
In case you forgot how last season went, it wasn’t a fun one for Aggie fans. Here’s a quick recap:
Gary Andersen, the coach who became a legend after reviving the program a decade ago, was back. He went 0-3 in the second year of his return, then stepped down. Frank Maile became the interim head coach, went 1-2, and dismissed the starting quarterback along the way. Many of the players wanted Maile to get the permanent job, but after it was announced that Blake Anderson of Arkansas State would become the new head coach, some of those players accused the university of racial and religious discrimination. That led to boycotts from the players. The already-disastrous, pandemic-shortened season ended in a forfeit.
It was a low point for the program. There was a lot to fix, and fast. Now, the new coach Anderson is aiming to right the ship and get the program back to being competitive. After so much change comes a bunch of unanswered questions.
Who is going to play quarterback?
The opening game at Washington State is Saturday, and the starting quarterback has still not been announced, but it will come down to either junior transfer Logan Bonner or junior Andrew Peasley.
“I think it has been neck and neck every day,” Anderson said after the last fall scrimmage. “So they are making it difficult on us, but we will evaluate it as best we can. We still don’t have to make a decision today, but that time is approaching pretty quick.”
As of Monday afternoon, that still hadn’t changed. Anderson said he doesn’t want to rush the decision, but that he wants to make sure he finds the right guy who will lead this year’s team.
“We’re still in a quarterback competition,” he said. “We’re trying to be as transparent, as fair and as deliberate as we can be…They’ve both done phenomenal jobs.”
Bonner played quarterback at Arkansas State before following Anderson to Utah State, putting up 1,863 yards and 18 touchdowns in the 2020 season. Peasley started twice and played in five games for the Aggies last year, leading Utah State to its only win of the season against New Mexico. He put up 586 yards of total offense during the season and completed four touchdown passes.
Wide receiver Deven Thompkins didn’t say who he thought it would be, but said both are very good players with different strengths.
“Peasley, for example, he can use his legs really well,” Thompkins said. “He’s fast. He can get down the field and make those big plays with his legs, and he still has a great ball. Logan, he is more of a pocket passer. He’s accurate with his pocket passing.”
How good can this team be?
The changes go far beyond a new coach and quarterback. Anderson brought in a bunch of new transfers and a new, faster-paced offensive scheme. With all the changes, predicting just how good the team can be isn’t easy.
If the national media predictions were correct, Utah State would not be going bowling. USU was picked to finish fifth out of the six teams in the Mountain Division during the annual media days in July. If you look to the Vegas oddsmakers, the forecast isn’t any better. The over-under line has been set at 3.5 wins. Winning less than four games would certainly be a disappointment for Aggie fans. Excluding last season, Utah State has finished below 3.5 wins one time since Gary Andersen’s debut as head coach in 2009.
There are reasonable arguments that this team can do better than what others are saying. Last year’s problems and this year’s predictions don’t seem to have gotten the players down. The thing Anderson is most pleased about, he said, is his attitude among his players.
“I would tell you the thing (the players) have done the best is just consistent attitude, consistent work ethic,” Anderson said. “The one thing we have a choice to do right, every day, is how we work. In that sense, this group has had a very consistent, day-to-day work ethic.”
Thompkins entered the transfer portal after last season but eventually decided to stick around. He is looking forward to the new offense Anderson brought with him to Logan.
“It’s similar to the one we ran back in 2018 when we played with pace,” he said. “I’m excited to be back in that and wear teams down all day long.”
That pace certainly got the opponents’ attention, sometimes giving them no time for defensive substitutions. It was among the quickest in the country. When the chains were moving and the offense stayed on the field, it worked. The offensive numbers were down significantly a season ago when the team moved away from the scheme.
Despite all the changes, there will be some consistency. Aggie fans will be plenty familiar with names like Nathan, Bond, Scarver, Heninger, Grayson, Henry-Cole and Meitzenheimer. Those guys are all back, but there will also be a bunch of incoming transfers expected to contribute right away. Alongside Bonner are two others from Arkansas State, and ten more from other places. Six of those are from Power Five conference teams.
What can Aggie fans expect against Washington State?
For Utah State, beating a Power Five team on the road will be a tall task, especially considering the Aggies’ best teams in recent years haven’t been able to pull it off. That isn’t to say they haven’t come close.
In 2019 it was a three-point loss at Wake Forest. In 2018 it was a seven-point loss at Michigan State. There have been other close heartbreakers at USC, Auburn and Wisconsin in the last decade.
Washington State only played four games a year ago, with their lone win coming against Oregon State. So there are plenty of question marks with that team as well. But you can guess that with a Doak Walker Award candidate in running back Max Borghi, the Cougars’ offensive focus will be on the run game.
“He can play, there’s no doubt,” Anderson said of Borghi. “He’s a physical runner. He missed some time, but we expect him to come with his very best.”
More important for Washington State, Anderson said, is the experience the Cougars have on the offensive line. He said four of the five starters have been playing together for a long time.
“That makes our job really, really difficult,” he said.
When asked what to expect on who will start at quarterback for Washington State or how to prepare with no film on his opponent, Anderson didn’t seem too concerned.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time worrying about Washington State,” he said. “I’m worried about us. I want to make sure we have our best team ready to go.”
He added that he doesn’t know if his team is ready to go for week one, and that he won’t know until they take the field. This game, for him, is more about seeing where his new team is compared to where he wants them to be.
“That remains to be seen,” he said.