It’s been 45 years since Utah State has outpointed BYU during three straight years on the gridiron.
It’s been five seasons since the Cougars have defeated the Aggies and Boise State — BYU has played both teams every year during that timespan — in the same season.
That’s what’s on the line for both teams, among other things, when USU hosts BYU in the 89th installment of the rivalry on Saturday night at Maverik Stadium. The opening kickoff is scheduled for 8 o’clock in an Old Wagon Wheel showdown that will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
“Obviously, it’s a big game,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “Our guys are excited; players and coaches on both sides are going to be excited, and fans are going to be excited. It’s a good rivalry game. BYU has beat some really good teams this year, which we all know if you look and see what they’ve done. ... We’re excited about this opportunity to get out and compete again, and prepare like crazy and be ready to go on Saturday night.”
Indeed, the Cougars (3-4) have turned some heads with home wins over USC (ranked 24th at the time) and Boise State (ranked 14th at the time). BYU bounced back from painful road loses — the Cougars led in the fourth quarter in both contests — against Toledo and South Florida by besting the Broncos two weeks ago, and had an extra week to prepare for the Aggies. However, the Cougars have lost three consecutive games coming out of a bye week.
Like BYU, USU has experienced its share of ups and downs in 2019, The Aggies (4-3) must regroup after last weekend’s humbling 31-7 setback to Air Force on the road. USU was outgained by a whopping 472-128 margin last week and got absolutely annihilated in the time of possession battle, 45:43 to 14:17. This is a crucial game in regards to the bowl hopes for both football programs.
Fortunately for the Aggies, they have been very tough to beat on Merlin Olsen Field the past two-plus seasons, which is something BYU head coach Kalani Sitake is well aware of. A 10-game home winning streak is on the line for USU this weekend.
“The last game Utah State played was a little difficult to watch because the elements disrupted a lot of the throwing Jordan Love could do, and I think Air Force just took them out of the game with their possession of the ball,” Sitake said. “I thought that was a good game plan for Air Force, but for us it’s a different beast because (the Aggies) are at home. They play really well at home and they’re capable of putting up a lot of points, so our defense will have to be on top of things. I’m glad we got (another) week to prepare for them and that we had another game week of film. ... I’m looking forward to the game.”
Per usual, the outcome of Saturday’s showdown will likely be decided in the trenches. USU’s offensive and defensive lines dominated BYU a year ago en route to a 45-20 victory at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Both teams have taken their lumps in the trenches this season. USU struggled mightily on both sides of the line of scrimmage against AFA, but has otherwise been pretty stout defending the run in ‘19. Stopping the run has been a big stumbling block for BYU this season as it ranks 121st nationally in rushing defense (217.3 yards an outing).
The Aggies have won 33 of their last 39 games when they have a 100-yard rusher, so establishing a potent rushing attack — which they did this season against Wake Forest, Stony Brook, Colorado State and Nevada — will surely be a huge key to their success come Saturday. USU also ran the ball effectively in its road triumph over San Diego State, but was completely bottled up in one-sided setbacks to LSU and AFA.
USU racked up 233 yards on the ground against BYU a year ago and limited the Cougars to 39 yards rushing.
“Being able to go down there and win at (BYU’s) stadium, it was good,” said Love, who tossed four touchdowns and rushed for another against the Cougars in 2018. “Obviously, we’re both different teams this year, so we’ve just got to focus on what they’ve been doing this year and ways to attack that. (Our) defense is going to go out there and perform this week, and we’ve just got to go out and do our part (as an offense).”
USU’s defense will be tested by a balanced BYU passing attack that is led by tight end Matt Bushman. The 6-foot-5 junior paces the Cougars in receptions (28), receiving yards (398) and receiving touchdowns (three) this year. However, Bushman is one of five Cougars who have gained more than 217 yards through the air in ‘19.
Conversely, BYU hasn’t been nearly as consistent rushing the ball, especially after tailback Ty’Son Williams went down with a season-ending injury against Washington on Sept. 21. Redshirt freshman Sione Finau did have a 45-yard TD scamper against BSU, though.
BYU’s defense is anchored by a couple of very experienced and talented performers in 321-pound nose guard Khyiris Tonga and fellow senior Dayan Ghanwoloku, who recently made the transition from cornerback to safety. BYU’s D has intercepted nine passes this season, which is currently good enough for the No. 15 spot among all FBS teams, and has only allowed 12 passes of 20 or more yards. However, the Cougars have only averaged 1.0 sacks an outing, which ranks 122nd nationally.
Regardless of concerning and encouraging statistics, Andersen is expecting a formidable challenge from the Cougar defense.
“They play hard and they have good players,” Andersen said. “(BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki) mixes it up well. He’ll throw blitzes in there; he’ll drop eight in coverage, which if you’re going to beat BYU — and we’ve talked about it many times — you have to beat (BYU) when they drop eight, and they’re going to drop eight. My bet is if we play 70 snaps in the game, they’re going to drop eight 20 times probably.”
Another big key to Saturday’s showdown is what team will execute better and be more efficient in the red zone. Both squads have struggled in that area this season. The Cougars have found paydirt on only 10 of 25 trips inside the oppositions’ 20-yard line, but the Aggies have been even worse, capitalizing with TDs 8 of 24 times.
BYU is the first of three home games in a four-week stretch for Utah State, which has scored 40-plus points against the Cougars in back-to-back contests for only the third time in program history.
“We’re going to play some meaningful games in these next five weeks that we’re walking ourselves into right now,” Andersen said.