For large stretches of their first game of the 2019 college football season, the Aggies looked like the explosive, record-setting team from a year ago on the offensive end.
After all, Utah State racked up 596 yards of total offense and averaged an impressive 7.5 yards per play. For just the fifth time in program history, the Aggies had a 400-yard passer, 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher in the same game as quarterback Jordan Love (416 passing), wide receiver Siaosi Mariner (118 receiving) and running back Jaylen Warren (141 rushing) teamed up to accomplish that feat.
And yet, the Aggies still had their fair share of offensive struggles in last Friday’s heartbreaking 38-35 road loss to Wake Forest, and not just the three interceptions thrown by Love, which was exactly half his total from the entire 2018 campaign.
“If you have 600 yards of offense and you look to say we should’ve had more than 35 points, those are things you sit down and evaluate and discuss,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said at Monday’s press conference. “We need to be better on third downs on both sides of the football.”
Indeed, the third-down battle ended up playing a huge factor in USU’s latest nailbiting setback to a team from a Power 5 Conference. The Aggies only converted on 6 of 16 third downs, while the Demon Deacons were successful on 13 of 24 third downs.
Thanks in large part to its success on third downs, Wake Forest enjoyed a big advantage in time of possession and total offensive plays. The Demon Deacons won the time of possession battle, 36:13 to 23:47, and ran 26 more offensive plays (105-79) than the Aggies.
All five of the Aggies’ scoring drives transpired quickly as they only needed 2:31, 1:16, 1:42, :33 and 1:58 to find paydirt. Additionally, USU’s offense failed to pick up a first down on five possessions and was limited to one first down on two other occasions. Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons only went three and out twice.
“We didn’t have many long, sustained drives,” Andersen said. “What we did was scored quick or we were off the field quick, so that’s not how you draw it up, but sometimes when you play fast and play with pace, those things are going to happen. Defensively, we have to be able to react to that in a positive way and get ourselves off the field. If we get better on third downs, there will be a lot less reps, so we need to improve on third downs.”
Another thing that loomed large is USU was unable to score any points on two of its five forays inside the red zone, although Warren appeared to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-short run at the Wake Forest 12-yard line, but was given an unfavorable spot.
Arguably the most encouraging aspect of USU’s offense was the play of its largely unproven skill position athletes. For starters, Utah graduate transfers Caleb Repp and Mariner combined to haul in 13 receptions for 177 yards. Mariner was targeted nine times and finished with eight catches, while Repp was targeted six times, snared five receptions and earned a targeting penalty on Wake Forest safety Nasir Greer that gave the Aggies new life in the final minute of the contest.
Mariner is only the third Aggie to ever rack up more than 100 yards receiving in a game in his debut. Wideouts Jordan Nathan, Savon Scarver and Deven Thompkins also showcased their talents for an Aggie offense that finished with an impressive 10 explosive plays — plays of 20 or more yards.
“We have some guys that have true speed in space,” Andersen said. “This is a gifted crew of skill players on offense. We have a gifted quarterback and that, in turn, allows us to be very productive on the offensive side of the football. I expect that to continue to grow and develop. They should have some confidence, but they should not be even close to satisfied because we didn’t do enough to win the football game.”
Another big bright spot was the performance of USU’s youthful offensive line. Love was sacked just once in 49 passing attempts, plus the Demon Deacons were limited to five QB hurries. Additionally, the Aggies averaged 5.8 yards per rush, and Warren exploded through gaping holes for scampers of 59 and 43 yards.
“The O-line’s blocking was fantastic,” said Warren, who became the first Aggie to eclipse the century mark on the ground in his debut. “If you look at the big plays I did have, the holes were wide open. Anybody could’ve run through those holes. I give all the credit to them because I couldn’t have done what I did Friday night if it weren’t for them. They work extremely hard. I see them every day in practice, and I notice it. I try to be around them as much as I can and show them that I trust them and, hopefully, they trust me in the backfield. I just hope it’s reciprocated.”
USU’s defense was anchored by linebacker David Woodward, who showed everybody why he was an All-American in 2018. The junior amassed 24 tackles, including 18 of the solo variety and 3.5 for a loss. No. 9 also forced a pair of fumbles, recorded a sack and had a stunning strip sack for a touchdown called back due to a defensive holding penalty in the secondary.
Woodward currently ranks first among all FBS players in tackles and forced fumbles, plus his 24 tackles were just one shy of the single-game Mountain West record. It was an astonishing effort by a player who missed more than two weeks of fall camp and is still working his way back into game shape.
“All week (last week) I stayed after practice and ran a little bit extra, just trying to get myself into shape and get back into game shape,” Woodward said. “That was probably the biggest thing, and I’m probably going to have to do that for the first couple weeks.”
Three other Aggies who played very well defensively were backup defensive ends Jacoby Wildman and Nick Heninger, and safety Shaq Bond, who appears to be fully recovered from his knee surgery. Heninger and Wildman, a former Logan High star, each tallied 2.0 tackles for loss, and Wildman made five solo tackles. Bond finished with eight tackles, broke up two passes and showed off his outstanding athleticism on a few occasions.
Unfortunately for USU, its short-handed secondary had a rough night as Wake Forest signal caller Jamie Newman went off for 401 passing yards and a trio of touchdowns, and that’s with the Demon Deacons dropping a few passes. Additionally, the Aggies ultimately missed too many open field tackles against a stellar group of Wake Forest skill position players.
“We need to definitely work on that this week and going forward, just wrapping up and tackling with your arms,” Woodward said. “A lot of us just fly in there, sometimes, and hit with our shoulders, but everyone just needs to work on, including myself, wrapping up and holding on.”
• Nine Aggies made their first career start for the program in Repp, Mariner, Scarver, safety Troy Lefeged Jr. (10 tackles), LB Kevin Meitzenheimer (nine tackles), cornerback Andrew Grayson, and offensive linemen Ty Shaw, Karter Shaw and Andy Koch.
• USU’s captains against Wake Forest were RB Gerold Bright, kicker Dominik Eberle, DE Tipa Galeai and Woodward.
MW WEEKLY HONORS
• Hawaii wideout Cedric Byrd was selected as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after coming down with 14 catches for 224 yards and four TDs in his team’s 45-38 victory over visiting Arizona on Aug. 24. The senior ranks first nationally in receiving yards and his four TD receptions matched the MW record.
• Wyoming safety Alijah Halliburton was named the league’s Defensive POTW after tallying 17 tackles in his team’s 37-31 triumph over Missouri last Saturday. The senior also recovered a fumble and returned it 79 yards to set up a Cowboy field goal late in the second quarter.
• Boise State kicker Eric Sachse and Nevada kicker Brandon Talton shared the MW Special Teams POTW. Sachse booted field goals of 36, 36, 41, 26 and 30 yards in his squad’s wild come-from-behind win over Florida State, 36-31. The senior’s five FGs are tied for the second most in a single game in conference history. Talton hit a game-winning field goal from 56 yards to lead Nevada to a 34-31 win against Purdue. It was the longest walk-off field goal in MW history. Talton made his other field goal attempt (30 yards) and all four extra point attempts.