A rare opportunity awaits Utah State’s football team this weekend.
The Aggies will take the field against one of the most storied programs of all time when they travel to Death Valley to face No. 5 LSU this Saturday morning. Heading into the 2019 campaign, the Tigers ranked 12th among all FBS programs in career winning percentage at .654 (804-415).
“It will be a great place to play for our guys,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said during Monday’s press conference. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type thing. This team gets to fly across the country and go play these guys in that setting, and play a team that is ranked high nationally and has a great fan base. It will be very loud.”
This will likely be the second-largest crowd the Aggies have ever competed in front of in the history of the program. Tiger Stadium can accommodate 102,321 fans, making it the sixth-largest college football venue in the country. LSU’s first two home games — blowout wins over Georgia Southern and Northwestern State — drew in announced crowds of 97,420 and 100,334, respectively.
Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium holds 102,455 — making it the fifth-largest college football stadium nationally — and that was the announced crowd when the Volunteers thumped USU, 38-7, in 2011.
Playing in spacious stadiums will be nothing new for a handful of Aggie seniors. USU senior cornerback Cameron Haney was on the field when his team played at USC in 2016 (announced crowd of 62,487), Wisconsin in 2017 (75,324) and Michigan State in 2018 (73,114). Haney was redshirting and not on the traveling squad when USU competed in front of an announced crowd of 59,464 at Washington in 2015.
The fifth-year senior was asked at Monday’s press conference what he will tell his younger teammates to help them prepare for an environment like Tiger Stadium.
“I just tell them in practice, just imagine that out there,” Haney said. “Listen to the crowd, listen to the 100,000 before you get there so by the time you get there and the lights are on, it’s easy for you. Another thing that I tell them is that it’s just you and your one-on-one matchup, just do your job at the end of the day. The fans are there to distract you, but we have a big fan base here, as well. It’s really nothing new, it’s just a bigger place. I just make sure that everyone else is calm, collected and ready to do their job and execute.”
The last time the Aggies squared off in front of more than 70,000 fans, they nearly upset Michigan State. The Spartans escaped with a 38-31 victory in the season opener for both teams a year ago.
Staying within striking distance of LSU, however, could prove to be a much bigger challenge. Granted, they’ve only played four games and only one was against a traditionally strong program — a 45-38 road triumph over then-10 Texas — but the Tigers appear to be legitimate national title contenders. This is arguably LSU’s most dynamic offense in recent memory, one that is averaging 431.8 yards passing an outing and 57.8 points per game.
Even USU’s three University of Utah graduate transfers — tight end Caleb Repp, wide receiver Siaosi Mariner and defensive end Nick Heninger — only played one opponent ranked higher than this LSU squad during their time in Salt Lake City. The Utes hosted then-No. 4 Washington during the 2016 campaign and lost a nailbiter, 31-24. Heninger redshirted that season, as did Repp.
How does this LSU team compare against some of the other ranked foes Repp has faced?
“You can’t discredit LSU. They’re definitely one of the best teams in the country,” Repp said. “Talent-wise, they’ll be one of the best teams I’ve played throughout my career, so it’s going to be a fun matchup. Just like any team on any Saturday, they can be beat, so we’re going to go out there and do our best to execute our plays and focus on what we need to focus on and take our shot when we can.”
Saturday’s game will be extra special for USU running Gerold Bright, who is coming off quite possibly the best performance of his career in last Saturday’s Homecoming win over Colorado State. The native of Florida rushed for a hard-fought 179 yards on 36 carries in a driving rainstorm.
“You know, I’m from Pensacola, so Baton Rouge is probably like two or three hours from where I’m from, so, like I told the radio, that’s the second game my mother is ever going to see me play in college,” Bright said. “So, hopefully I’ll play really well.”
Likewise, Haney is looking forward to getting his shot at the Tigers.
“I’ve been imagining and dreaming of games like this,” Haney said.
In addition to playing a team loaded with four- and five-star recruits on its home field, the Aggies will have to contend with a couple of other challenges this weekend.
For starters, Saturday’s game is slated to start at 10 a.m. MST. The last time the Aggies played this early was at Auburn on Sept. 3, 2011, a game in which they lost in heartbreaking fashion, 42-38.
Nevertheless, Andersen is not really concerned about an early kickoff.
“I like the opportunity to play an early kickoff,” he said. “... It is an early kickoff for us, but we’ve had practices that are early. We have offseason workouts and conditioning that are early. We’ll talk about it and make sure we’re prepared for it.”
What Andersen is more anxious about is the weather for Saturday’s contest. As of Tuesday night, Saturday’s projected high temperature in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is 93, with humidity of around 57 percent.
“One of the big things for this game is we’re going to practice in 50-degree weather all week long, and it’s going to be 95 degrees in Louisiana with high humidity,” Andersen said. “That will be our challenge, to make sure we hydrate and get ourselves to where we need to be in those positions, those spots. We may be used to that in August, but we’re not used to that now.”