The last time Utah State’s football team traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it wasn’t pretty for the visitors.
Wake Forest dominated USU on both sides of the ball en route to a 46-10 victory on Sept. 16, 2017.
Nevertheless, there was a silver lining in that game for the Aggies. That’s when USU fans got their first real glimpse of the potential of then-redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Love, who replaced then-starter Kent Myers in the third quarter and promptly threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to Gerold Bright.
Love and company will get another shot at redemption against the Demon Deacons, who host the Aggies in the season opener for both teams on Friday. Opening kickoff from BT&T Field is scheduled for 6:05 p.m.
“I’m really excited, especially since I didn’t get to play too much in that game, so I’m excited to go back down there and show them what we’re really all about now,” Love said. “It’s going to be a different story this time when we go down there. I’m excited to start the season off down there.”
Friday’s showdown will provide a good litmus test for both programs. The Aggies are coming off one of their best seasons in school history, but must replace nine starters from their record-breaking offense. The Demon Deacons are replacing half of their starters from last year’s squad that finished strong to become bowl eligible, and then rallied past Memphis to win the Birmingham Bowl.
“Sometimes I maybe get accused of inflating what a team is,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said of USU. “These guys won 11 games and they have a Heisman Trophy candidate back at quarterback. They are a really good football team. This is the toughest opener we have had since I have been here in terms of the quality of the opponent. We are going to have to play very well, not turn the football over and we can’t afford to make big mistakes and be successful Friday night. It will be a great first test for us.”
Likewise, this will be a big yardstick for the Aggies, who haven’t defeated a team that currently competes in a Power 5 Conference on the road since Aug. 30, 1997 — a 21-14 triumph over Utah. The Demon Deacons have turned a corner under Clawson as they have gone bowling three straight years. Additionally, Wake Forest is coming off its two best offensive seasons — in scoring and total offense — in program history.
“Wake Forest is a very good football team,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “They have a lot of momentum coming off of last season with the big bowl victory. They have an explosive offense and are very well-coached on defense. They have good coaches and players. ... We’re excited about the opportunity and much respect to Wake Forest in all three phases.”
There are some intriguing matchups in this game, starting with a strong, experienced Wake Forest offensive line squaring off against USU’s dynamic defensive line. Three of the Demon Deacons’ mainstays in the offensive trenches have combined for 81 career starts. However, Wake Forest’s center and left guard are redshirt sophomores, and must contend with a trio of Aggie senior defensive tackles in Devon Anderson, Fua Leilua and Christopher ’Unga.
USU will be breaking in four new starters on the offensive line in this game. Fortunately for the Aggies, the Demon Deacons only return one starter from their defensive line, and that’s Carlos Basham Jr., who finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2018.
Love is confident USU’s offensive line will be up to the challenge.
“That’s one group that got a lot better,” Love said. “You can just tell from the first day of (fall) camp to the last day, pass protect, run blocking, all that, just the tremendous amount of work they put in. I have all the confidence in the world in them, and am excited to get behind them.”
Utah State’s secondary will surely be tested by a tall, talented group of Wake Forest wide receivers. Senior Scott Washington, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 225 pounds, caught 45 passes for 711 yards in 2017. Redshirt sophomore Sage Surratt,, another imposing target at 6-3, 215 pounds, hauled in 41 receptions for 581 yards last season.
“This will be a big test, especially with all of the run-pass option plays, and taking those shots down the field,” Andersen said. “... They’ll have a height advantage, there’s no doubt about it. ... That will be a challenge and I’m excited to see how our guys will match up against them.”
Love will be throwing against an experienced Wake Forest secondary anchored by cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson, who have both started 28 games and have combined to break up an impressive 65 passes.
However, Bassey, Henderson and company struggled to create turnovers a year ago. The Demon Deacons only picked off six passes and finished with 16 total takeaways. Conversely, the Aggies ranked first nationally with 32 forced turnovers — 22 of which were interceptions.
Love only tossed six picks a year ago, making Wake Forest’s task to come up with takeaways seemingly more difficult.
“It starts with their quarterback, Jordan Love, who they are promoting to be a Heisman (Trophy) candidate,” Clawson said. “We have had NFL scouts come through here and some of them have told me that after the guys at Alabama and Oregon, he might be the third quarterback taken in the (NFL) draft this year. They think he is that good and when you watch the film it backs that up.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Aggies will be closing Wake Forest out if the outcome is still up in the air in the fourth quarter. USU has struggled in closely contested games over the past four seasons. On the contrary, the Demon Deacons has shined in that department under Clawson as they are 9-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer since 2016.
Notes: Wake Forest has nine straight season openers and has posted a non-conference record of 17-7 under Clawson, who is entering his sixth season at the helm. ... Andersen went 7-2 in his last nine road games during his first stint at USU. ... The Aggies will play their opener on the road for the eighth time in the last 11 seasons.