Things were looking pretty bleak for the Aggies a week ago at this time, but they showcased a lot of resolve in pulling out a hard-fought road victory over Fresno State last weekend.
As a result, all of the Aggies’ primary goals this season are still attainable. One of those objectives — becoming bowl eligible for the eighth time in the last nine seasons — can be checked off by Utah State’s football team this Saturday when it hosts Wyoming in a crucial Mountain West showdown. Opening kickoff from Maverik Stadium is slated for 2 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
“We talked about it way back when in January, then we talked about it again in spring ball, then we talked about it again in fall camp to get yourself to meaningful games in the month of November,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “That’s exactly what this group of guys has done. They have battled and battled and battled.”
The Aggies (5-4, 4-1 MW) must beat the Cowboys (6-3, 3-2) to stay alive in a very competitive race for a Mountain Division title. Accomplishing that task will be a formidable one, though, because Wyoming is one of the best teams in the conference.
For starters, the Cowboys were one defensive stand away from upsetting No. 21 Boise State last Saturday on the road. Wyoming also drove inside BSU territory late in regulation before eventually falling in overtime, 20-17. The Cowboy’s three loses this season are by a combined 10 points.
“They’re a good football team,” Andersen said. “They’ve been built for this year. They understood that walking into the year. If you listened to them at the beginning of the year, they felt like this was going to be a very good football team for them. It’s played out that way.”
To their credit, the Cowboys have done an exceptional job of turning things around after getting off to a 2-6 start a year ago. Wyoming struggled mightily during the first eight games of the 2018 campaign, but gained some traction in its 24-16 loss to USU. The Cowboys went on to win their final four contests of the season and have won 10 of 13 games since their setback to the Aggies.
If it wasn’t for a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Savon Scarver and a near pick-six by Jontrell Rocquemore that resulted in an easy TD, USU likely would have lost to Wyoming a year ago. The Cowboys outgained the Aggies, 331-193, and limited quarterback Jordan Love to 53 yards passing on 28 attempts.
With the win, the Aggies snapped a two-game losing streak to the Cowboys, who rallied to defeat USU in Logan, 28-23, in 2017. Wyoming scored the final 12 points of the fourth quarter to escape Cache Valley with “Bridger’s Rifle,” which has been awarded to the victor in this annual game since the 2013 campaign.
“It’s been a battle the past couple of years playing those guys, and I have a lot of respect for them,” USU defensive end Jacoby Wildman said. “It’s power football, it’s running down your throat. They say, ‘You’re going to have to stop us, you’re going to have to make those stand when you need to.’ This week, it’s going to be much more crucial for us to do our assignments and be where we’re supposed to be, because if you’re not, they’ll exploit it. We’re really excited to play them, though.”
Indeed, Wyoming is undoubtedly one of the best rushing teams USU will face this season. The Cowboys average 5.1 yards per carry and 227.8 yards an outing.
With the exception of the jet sweep, the Aggies did a solid job of defending a good FSU rushing attack last weekend. It was a much-needed shot of momentum for Utah State, which allowed a whopping 669 yards on the ground in its previous two games against Air Force and BYU.
Love was phenomenal against the Bulldogs as he completed 30 of 39 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns and, more importantly, didn’t throw any interceptions. The Aggies will likely need another big performance from their junior signal caller as the Cowboys have only conceded 97.6 yards rushing per game and 2.8 yards an attempt.
“Utah State’s an explosive offense,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said. “Jordan Love has got a great arm. He’s mobile. They’re got a whole stable of receivers they’re able to go to. (They’ve got) a big, strong offensive line. Their defense poses challenges. They’ll operate out of a three-down front to a four-down front and a lot of different looks there, and so we’re certainly excited about playing the ball game. There’s a lot on the line.”
Wyoming ranked second in the Mountain West in passing defense a year ago, but is 11th this season as opponents have averaged 278.2 yards through the air. Nevertheless, the Cowboys have only given up 10 TD passes — the second-lowest tally in the conference — and have made a lot of big plays as is evidenced by their eight interceptions and 41 passes broken up.
The Cowboys, who are 1-3 on the road this season, limited the Broncos to 194 yards passing and 285 total yards a week ago. Boise State entered the contest having averaged 469 total yards an outing. The Broncos only had three plays of 20 or more yards, so the Aggies will likely need to be patient in sustaining drives in order to pull out a victory.
“I thought for the most part we limited (BSU’s) explosive plays,” Bohl said. “They’ve got some big-time playmakers. We were able to pressure their passer. ... I think we got maybe two sacks, but we hit the quarterback an awful lot.”
Wyoming, which is eligible to play in a bowl for the fourth straight season, ranks first in the Mountain West with 28 sacks and will surely provide a stern test for USU’s youthful offensive line.
In addition to providing solid pass protection for Love, the Aggies must be stingy with the football. Wyoming ranks seventh nationally with a turnover margin of plus-10. The Cowboys have 15 takeaways on defense and have only turned the ball over a measly five times on offense.
“Obviously, they do a nice job in those areas of making sure they protect the football as much as they can,” Andersen said. “That’s of high importance to them. Hopefully, we get one or two out. We didn’t get any last week, so you’d think there would be one sitting out there for us somewhere, right? It’s got to be there somewhere.”
USU completely avoided the turnover bug against Fresno State, but Love has tossed a trio of interceptions in three games during the 2019 campaign.
Capitalizing in the red zone is also a must for the Aggies, who have struggled in that regard this season. Converting in the red zone will be extremely challenging against a Wyoming defense that ranks ninth among FBS teams in red zone defense. Opponents have only found paydirt on 13 of 33 trips inside the Cowboys’ 20-yard line.