There’s certainly no warm-up game for the Utah State football program.
The Aggies will quickly find out if they’re legitimate Mountain West contenders as they open their 2021 season on the road against defending champion Boise State. Opening kickoff from Albertsons Stadium in scheduled for 5:10 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
“Well, it’s always a tremendous challenge and Boise has earned that, they deserve that,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said of opening the season against the MW’s flagship program. “ ... Sometimes you’re in that position to be that top team where everybody’s trying to knock you off, and we’ve been there. It’s extremely challenging every week. Every week, everybody is coming at you and wants to take your spot of where you sit, and again (that position) is well deserved by Boise.”
The Broncos have been nearly unbeatable at home since 2000 as they have prevailed in 120 of 129 games on the blue turf, which equates to the highest winning percentage (.930) among all FBS programs during that timespan. Indeed, it’s been an impressive run of sustained excellence for the Broncos, who have won at least eight games in 21 straight seasons and have competed in 18 consecutive bowl games — the fifth-longest streak nationally.
Boise State has always enjoyed a significant home field advantage as its fanbase is dedicated and boisterous. Fortunately for the Aggies, that won’t be a factor this weekend because no fans are allowed to attend the season opener for both teams.
Nevertheless, leaving the Gem State’s capital city with a victory will be a tall order for Utah State. After all, the Aggies haven’t defeated the Broncos on the blue turf since 1996, plus BSU owns a commanding 19-5 lead in the all-time series.
Both teams are replacing essentially half of their starters from the 2019 campaign, but the Broncos do welcome back seven players who garnered all-Mountain West recognition a year ago.
One minor advantage the Aggies might have is they will be breaking in a new base offense and defense this season. This is the third consecutive season the Aggies have new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. This means the Broncos don’t have game film to scout for the changes.
“This one has been challenging trying to prepare to see what we think Utah State is going to do,” said BSU head coach Bryan Harsin, who led the Broncos to three MW titles during his first six years at the helm. “We’re still working on it and coaches are doing the best they can with the information right now. It’s difficult that way opening up with a conference game right out of the gate. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, win the conference, and you get a chance to (help yourself) do that in game one, so we have to be ready.”
Whether or not this affords the Aggies a slight advantage remains to be seen. Even if it does, it won’t matter if USU doesn’t tackle significantly better than it has the previous two encounters with BSU. The Broncos racked up 297 yards rushing against the Aggies in last year’s convincing 56-21 win at Maverik Stadium. Returning starter George Holani accounted for 178 of those yards on just 16 carries.
The year before that, current Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison went off for 200 yards on the ground against the Aggies. Boise State won that game 33-24 in what was a showdown for the conference’s Mountain Division title.
“We’re very motivated,” USU safety Shaq Bond said. “All practice, all week, we’ve been working on just tackling, tackling, tackling, making sure we stop the run first. Sideline to sideline, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to beat us this year. Our defense is way faster than last year, all across the board, so I’m pretty excited to see how we tackle this week.”
Simply put, the Broncos always have a physical ground attack, as is evidenced by the fact they’ve had an 1,000-yard rusher in 11 straight seasons. Matching that level of smashmouth mentality is a must for the Aggies, who are pretty inexperienced in the defensive trenches.
“We’ll have to tackle well, we’ll have to play great reads on our gaps and you’ve got to hang with Boise for four quarters, right? It’s going to be a fist fight and that’s the best thing I like about (BSU),” Andersen said. “We need to learn how to get into those fist fights, to play complementary football and to be able to deal with it for four quarters because ... if we’re going to have an opportunity to win we have to be that tough, physical team.”
Both teams have proven commodities at the quarterback position, although this will be Utah transfer Jason Shelley’s first start as an Aggie. The junior started five games as a redshirt freshman after Tyler Huntley went down with a season-ending injury and helped propel Utah to a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.
“I feel pretty confident,” Shelley said. “I know I believe in the guys and the guys seem to believe in me, so I’m going out there with complete confidence ready to showcase my skills and give it to Boise.”
Boise State’s starting signal caller is 4-star recruit Hank Bachmeier, who led the Broncos to a big come-from-behind road victory over Florida State a year ago as a true freshman in his first collegiate game.
Bachmeier’s backup is USC transfer Jack Sears, while Shelley’s primary backup is sophomore Andrew Peasley. Both head coaches suggested their second-string quarterbacks might be used in Saturday’s opener.
Shelley and Peasley are both explosive athletes who can bolster what is expected to be a strong Aggie rushing attack in 2020. Nevertheless, USU will need to be able to keep BSU’s defense honest by effectively throwing the ball, which will be challenging considering the Broncos have three returning all-Mountain West performers in the secondary.
“Those (BSU) kids are competitive and tough-minded kids, and they’re excited to play,” Andersen said. “And I believe they’ll have their shot at the next level also, so we’re going to match our kids up against that and see how we’ll react against what was the best secondary that we saw last year in the league.”
Notes: This is the latest start to a season for BSU in program history, while USU hasn’t started this late since 1906. The Aggies’ season opener that year was Nov. 6. ... The Broncos have prevailed in 20 conference openers in a row, while the Aggies are 7-1 in league openers since joining the Mountain West. ... This will be the first time USU has kicked off its season with a conference contest since 1995 and only the sixth time in program history. All of those games have been on the road. ... This marks the ninth time in the last 12 years the Aggies have played their opener on the road.