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Jason Turner

There’s no denying Oct. 5 was a day to forget for a Utah State offense that only mustered up 159 total yards in a 44-6 loss to LSU at Tiger Stadium.

As bad as the Aggies looked offensively in their last outing, there’s no reason to push the panic button. However, I reserve the right to change my mind if USU struggles Saturday night at home against a very suspect Nevada defense.

The past two games have been a bit concerning to say the least for USU quarterback Jordan Love, who only completed 50.7 percent of his passes for 334 yards and five interceptions, vs. a pair of touchdowns.

In all fairness, most quarterbacks would have struggled to contend with the monsoon-like conditions USU and Colorado State faced on Sept. 28 at Maverik Stadium. However, Love’s performance against LSU was a bit reminiscent of how things transpired for the standout signal caller a year ago against Wyoming. LSU’s talented defense certainly deserves a lot of credit for that, as did Wyoming’s last season, but it was still downright ugly for Love and the Aggie offense.

That being said, I do believe Love and company will bounce back this weekend against the Wolf Pack, provided the weather isn’t too awful. Facing Nevada’s secondary just might be what the doctor ordered for Love and a capable group of Aggie wide receivers and tight ends.

To say the Wolf Pack have struggled to defend the pass is a bit of an understatement. Case in point: Not only does Nevada ranks 10th in the Mountain West in pass defense at 297.0 yards an outing, but last out of 12 teams in touchdowns allowed through the air (20) and 11th in yards per completion (13.5). Additionally, the Wolf Pack have allowed opposing QB’s to complete 63.8 percent of their passes.

Nevada’s defensive statistics against the pass have been particularly poor when you take away contests against a terrible UTEP squad and a run-first Weber State team. The Wildcats are only averaging 147.2 yards per game through the air.

In their other four games — thrilling wins against Purdue and San Jose State, and humbling loses to Oregon and Hawaii — the Wolf Pack have surrendered an average of 400.7 yards through the air, plus a whopping 19 touchdowns. Nevada’s secondary was really bad against the Ducks and Warriors, who completed a combined 81.6 percent of their passes for 775 yards and 12 TDs.

In all fairness to the Wolf Pack, they have squared off against three of the top 10 passing teams at the FBS level in terms of yardage. Hawaii is currently ranked fourth (351.4 ypg), while SJSU is ninth (326.0) and Purdue 10th (324.5).

Coincidentally, the Aggies have faced two of the top seven passing teams nationally in LSU (second at 395.5) and Wake Forest (seventh, 331.0).

Indeed, it’s easy to see why Nevada and USU have taken their lumps on the back end of the defense at times during the 2019 campaign.

Nevada’s defense has yielded a wealth of explosive plays in the passing game, having given up completions of 60, 46, 37, 30, 36, 42, 66, 34, 39, 49 and 38 yards in the four aforementioned games. Speedy Aggies receivers like Savon Scarver, Deven Thompkins and Jordan Nathan should have chances to make chunk-yardage plays against this Nevada secondary, even if the conditions are less than ideal.

The Wolf Pack have been solid defending the run as opponents are only averaging 115.8 ypg — which ranks fourth in the Mountain West — and 3.8 yards per carry. Not only is it a golden opportunity for the Aggies to break out of their funk in the passing game, they might need to in order to improve to 3-0 in conference play.

I firmly believe the Aggies will get back on track through the air if they can dial up some effective screen passes. A year ago, this was a big weapon for USU as running backs Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright turned screen passes into 80-plus-yard touchdowns. However, the Aggies haven’t been efficient in this area all season long in ’19, and they were indisputably dreadful against the Tigers. Yes, LSU is very good defensively, but Florida excelled several times against the Tigers last weekend with screen passes and short routes.

Utah State’s inability to make plays in the screen game needs to be corrected if this team hopes to contend for a Mountain West title.

Saturday’s game is also a prime opportunity for the Aggies to break out of their funk in regard to red zone offense. Of USU’s 19 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, only six have resulted in touchdowns.

Fortunately for the Aggies, the Wolf Pack are one of the worst teams in the nation when it comes to red zone defense. After all, Nevada has conceded TDs on 19 of its foes’ 22 forays into the red zone.

Something has to give Saturday night on Merlin Olsen Field. I think the Aggies are primed to have a breakout performance through the air and inside the Wolf Pack’s 20-yard line.

On the flip side, if USU struggles in both of those areas, it might be time to push the panic button.


Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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