It was a much-needed bye week for Utah State’s football program, which is eager to return to action this Saturday on the road against Mountain West foe UNLV.
Simply put, getting as healthy as possible was the Aggies’ primary focus last week, especially now that they are entering a seven-games-in-seven weeks stretch.
“Mostly, what we tried to work on this (past) week is just getting guys fresh and healthy,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said. “We did not put the pads on. We had banged a lot over the course of the last month or two, and we took the pads off and did a lot of cardio work, a lot of speed and agility out in space, throwing and catching. And we’ll get back to putting the pads on, on Tuesday and really focus more on the game plan as of today.”
A handful of Aggie starters was injured during their last game — a 34-20 loss to then-No. 13 BYU on Friday, Oct. 1 at Maverik Stadium. Three of those starters, quarterback Logan Bonner, running back Calvin Tyler Jr. and defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka, really benefited from the bye week.
Bonner hyperextended his knee with less than nine minutes remaining in the game and did not return. Fortunately for the Arkansas State transfer, there was no structural damage and he should be ready to go Saturday.
“I think he’ll be as healthy as he’s been since fall camp,” Anderson said. “He was beat up in the Washington State game and has played with an injury the whole time. (And) he has really re-aggravated the injury a couple of times, and most of what happened the other night against BYU was again the same thing. He did hyperextend the knee, but mainly that thigh area that got hurt in Week 1 was where most of the pain, swelling and discomfort came from. He felt much better going into the weekend. He threw the ball and moved around well in practice.”
Motu’apuaka and Tyler Jr. were both limited against the Cougars. Motu’apuaka was helped off the field at one time and only finished with one tackle, while BYU held Tyler Jr. — the Mountain West’s leading rusher at the time — to three yards on 12 carries. The Oregon State transfer did lose 12 yards on an unforced fumble in the third quarter, but ultimately never got going against the Cougars.
As far as Motu’apuaka is concerned, Anderson asserted he “has looked a lot better, probably the best he’s felt since the season started.” The head coach also said Tyler Jr. “did get (his ankle) rolled up the other day, but looked really good towards the end of the (bye) week.”
Arguably the biggest setback the Aggies suffered injury wise against the Cougars involved two-year starting center Falepule Alo. The sophomore barely played in that contest and was replaced by Demytrick Ali’ifua, who slid over from his left guard position. USU is already lacking depth in the offensive trenches, so the potential extended absence of Alo would be a significant loss.
“Right now probably the biggest issue for us might be Pule,” Anderson said. “He got his hand banged up pretty good and it may need some work, which could keep him out for a while. But the other guys are really bumps and bruises. I think the (bye) week really helped everybody out a lot and I think we’ll go into this game way fresher than we’ve been the last three weeks for sure.”
The Aggies will get the rare opportunity to play in a NFL stadium this weekend as UNLV plays its home games at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. Construction of this state-of-the-art $1.9 billion facility began in November of 2017 and this is the second year the Raiders and Rebels have been able to use it.
“Any time you walk into a stadium that is this big — I mean, the thing is just massive, it’s going to be gorgeous, it is brand new — there’s a wow factor when you walk in,” Anderson said. “But I think pretty quickly you realize it’s time to play ball. It’s not likely to be a huge crowd, obviously with them being 0-5. I don’t expect there to be a huge, roaring crowd. To me, my big concern is we’ve played in great environments for five weeks in a row and I want to make sure that our guys don’t expect the energy to come from outside. It’s going to have to come from our sideline. Hopefully, we’ll have a great crowd that follows us down there, but it’s still a massive place that’s likely to be less than half full or even worse, and so you’ve got to bring your own energy.”
Allegiant Stadium has a capacity of 65,000, but the Rebels weren’t able to come close to filling it in their first two home contests this fall — against Eastern Washington (a 35-33 loss in double overtime) and against Iowa State (a 48-3 loss). The announced attendance at both games were 21,970 and 35,193, respectively, although the actual attendance was surely lower, particularly against ISU.
USU safety Hunter Reynolds, for one, doesn’t think it will be a huge adjustment, even though he is used to playing in front of mammoth crowds. Reynolds spent his first four seasons at the University of Michigan, which plays its home games at “The Big House,” which holds nearly 110,000 fans.
“Even though it’s great to have the crowd on your side, I mean, at the end of the day it’s still football,” Reynolds said. “Like all of those times during camp we were on the practice field, there were no fans; when we were (practicing) in the stadium, no fans. I mean, even last year, last year coming from the Big 10 (Conference) we didn’t have fans for most of the season, so it’s something we’re all kind of used to. So I think it really just comes down to, at the end of the day, it’s football, so you’ve got to do your job. And if the fans are there, great. But if they’re not, you still have to do your job.”
This will be Reynolds’ third time competing in an NFL stadium. It will be the first time for Ali’ifua, who is from San Leandro, Calfornia, and grew up cheering for the Raiders.
“It’s the best,” Ali’ifua said. “I’m a big-time Raiders fan. I’m from the Bay Area, so I’m excited, man.”
Ali’ifua is also looking forward to visiting with former USU and current UNLV offensive line coach TJ Woods. Woods was on Gary Andersen’s staff at Utah State twice — from 2011-12 and 2019-20.
“I’m excited, man, especially since I love coach Woods,” Ali’ifua said. “He’s a great guy, great man, great coach, so it will just be fun, just like when we played Boise (State), I enjoyed the matchup against coach Frank Maile. It’s exciting. Especially when you know someone on the other side of the ball, it makes it a little more interesting for me personally.”