Over the past 40 seasons, Utah State’s football program has only won three of its first four games on three occasions.
The Aggies will have an opportunity to start 3-1 for the second straight year when they welcome Colorado State to Maverik Stadium for their Mountain West home opener on what is expected to be a rainy Saturday evening. USU’s annual Homecoming game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network and is slated to begin at 5:30 p.m.
It will be the conference opener for the Rams, who are coming off a nailbiting 41-35 loss at home to Toledo — a game in which they outgained the Rockets by nearly 150 total yards, 694-547.
“We’re about to start conference play this week against Utah State, a very, very talented team,” CSU head coach Mike Bobo said. “I know they didn’t win our conference last year, but they were right there in contention all the way until the last weekend. (They have) the most explosive offense in the conference, the best quarterback in the conference coming back, who is playing very, very confident.”
The Rams are reeling a bit, having lost their last two games and three of their first four. Two weeks ago, CSU battled Arkansas to a 34-34 stalemate through three quarters, but the hosts outscored the Rams 21-0 over the final 15 minutes of play. In fact, the Rams have been outscored 48-18 in the fourth quarter this season.
“I think we’re improving, yes,” Bobo said. “We’ve just got to improve enough to win a ballgame, and keep fighting and trying.”
The Aggies are favored by 21 points against the Rams this time around, but were also heavy favorites a year ago when they escaped Fort Collins with a 29-24 win. USU was outgained 506-310 in that game, only scored one touchdown offensively and needed a pair of interception returns to the house to prevail. Additionally, the Aggies were very fortunate when former CSU star and current NFL wide receiver Preston Williams narrowly stepped out of bounds before catching what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown in the waning seconds of the snow-laden contest.
Just like a year ago, the Rams have given up a lot of points and yards. CSU currently ranks 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in scoring defense (40.2 points per game) and 105th in total defense (439.2 yards per game). The Rams have yielded 52, 55 and 41 points in their three games against FBS foes.
That could spell doom against an Aggie offense that ranks first in the Mountain West in total yards an outing (562.7) and passing offense (367 ypg). The Rams have struggled mightily defending the run, and it showed against Toledo, which amassed 436 yards on 46 carries, and had touchdown scampers of 8, 37, 75 and 47 yards.
The Rams have been able to offset much of their defensive woes by once again being explosive on offense. CSU ranks just behind USU in the Mountain West in total offense (552.2 ypg) and is among the most balanced teams in the league (207.2 ypg rushing and 345 ypg receiving).
USU defensive end Nick Heninger is looking forward to contending with a formidable CSU rushing attack that is averaging 5.9 yards an attempt. The Aggies have only conceded 2.8 yards per carry through three games, and haven’t allowed a rush of more than 14 yards over their last two games.
“They’re definitely good as well,” Heninger said of CSU. “The biggest way to win a game is to stop the run game. That’s got to be the first place we stop them, and then we want to make them pass. You always want to stop the run because if they can run on you then that’s the biggest slap in the face. We pride ourselves in being a tough run-stopping defense.”
In his first career start last weekend, strong-armed CSU quarterback Patrick O’Brien threw for 405 yards. Indeed, the Maverik Stadium scoreboard operator might be very busy if the weather is not terrible.
“If you gaze at the numbers and look at the numbers and you take those for what they’re worth after a few football games, you’d look and say there’s a lot of weapons on offense on both sides,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “The defenses have done some good things at times, but the offenses will have more body blows and more haymakers than the defense has had by the numbers, and that would be on both sides. So, away we go. We’ll sit down and see what happens this Saturday.”
For all of their struggles on defense, the Rams have actually been stingy on third downs. Toledo only converted on 3 of 13 third downs, and opponents have converted at a measly 32 percent clip against CSU in 2019.
However, the Rams should be tested by an Aggie offense that has been successful on 50 percent of its third downs, which is good enough for the 14th-best conversion rate nationally.
CSU has outgained the opposition by an average of 120 yards so far this season, but has ultimately been undone by turnovers. The Rams have given the ball away nine times and only have a pair of takeaways on defense. CSU’s turnover margin of minus-seven ranks 124th nationally.
Additionally, the Rams have committed far too many penalties. They are averaging 73.5 penalty yards an outing and were whistled for 11 infractions totaling 82 yards last week against Toledo.
“(We’ve given up) too many explosive plays defensively, and it’s going to happen,” Bobo said. “Just turn on the TV. Every team in the nation is having explosive plays, and it’s hard to play defense when we’ve given up too many. But the turnovers and the penalties would probably be the No. 1 thing (we need to clean up).”
The Aggies won the turnover margin for the first time this season last week against San Diego State, 1-0, and that loomed large in USU’s first triumph over SDSU since 1967.
USU Homecoming notes: The Aggies are 54-32-2 all-time on Homecoming. Ironically enough, CSU has been far away USU’s most common opponent on Homecoming. The two teams have squared off 14 other times on USU’s Homecoming, with the Aggies enjoying a 8-5-1 advantage. USU’s next most common foe on Homecoming has been Utah and BYU — seven games apiece.