It’s been 50 years since Utah State’s football program has won on the road against an opponent from a Power 5 Conference.
The Aggies have also emerged victorious in eight straight games in the month of September, so one lengthy streak will come to an end late Saturday night in Pullman, Washington. Washington State will welcome USU to Gesa Field for a scheduled 9 p.m. opening kickoff in the 2021 season opener for both teams. The game will be televised live on the Pac-12 Network.
“I’m excited about the game,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said. “I think it’s a great game for us. It’s a big challenge, we know that going in, but it’s a challenge that we’re excited about. We’re putting together a game plan to go up there and get a win on the road against a good opponent, and I think the kids have kind of wrapped their minds around that, that is possible, it is doable if we do the right things, if we prepare the right way and we go it and play our best ball.”
Both football programs are hungry for the opportunity to prove they are capable of making substantial strides in ‘21. The Aggies went to a bowl game eight times in a nine-year stretch before going 1-5 last fall. The Cougars went bowling five straight times from 2015-19, but only got to play in four games a year ago and, like the Aggies, only tasted victory once.
Thanks in large part to their struggles a year ago, the Cougars were picked to finish sixth out of six teams in the Pac-12’s North Division in the league’s preseason media poll.
Meanwhile, the Aggies were projected to place ahead of only New Mexico in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division.
Indeed, both teams essentially have nowhere to go but up following the disappointment of ‘20. Washington State and Utah State do have a wealth of motivated veterans anxious to turns things around. The Cougars welcomed back 20 starters, including 10 on defense and eight on offense. The Aggies have nine returning starters on both sides of the ball, plus they added 15 transfers from FBS programs — all of whom have been playing college football since at least 2018.
Unlike the Aggies, the Cougars enjoyed a fair amount of success offensively a year ago as they averaged 27.0 points per game and 384.0 yards of total offense an outing. Washington State has transitioned from the air raid offense of former head coach Mike Leach to the run and shoot instituted by new head coach Nick Rolovich, who is starting his second season at the WSU helm.
One of USU’s graduate transfers, standout linebacker Justin Rice, is very familiar with the run and shoot thanks to his time at Fresno State. Rolovich was the head coach at Mountain West rival Hawaii when Rice was still a Bulldog.
“I had the opportunity to play against (Rolovich) and kind of the scheme he runs, so we’ve been really focusing on the type of passing schemes they’re going to throw at you and then the little run variations that they have just to throw you off, just to keep you honest,” Rice said. “So they’re definitely going to try to pass first and we’ve got a good game plan to take care of that, and we’ll try to get after the quarterback.”
Nevertheless, the run and shoot isn’t as pronounced of a pass-happy scheme as the air raid. The run and shoot features more rushing plays, which is something WSU star tailback Max Borghi is looking forward to. Borghi, a preseason first-team all-Pac-12 selection, was limited to one game a year ago due to a back injury. The senior caught 142 passes in Leach’s scheme from 2018-19.
“Obviously, I can prove myself (as a pass catcher) and if I have aspirations of playing at the next level, obviously that’s huge,” Borghi said in an interview with the AP. “(But) I’m excited to just run the ball. I felt like Leach’s offense would frustrate me sometimes. I’d be like, ‘just run the ball,’ but we wouldn’t do it. It got frustrating.”
The Cougars ran the ball efficiently last season as they averaged 154.8 ypg and 5.0 yards per carry. WSU welcomed back three offensive linemen who earned some sort of all-conference honors a year ago. Standing their ground against a veteran offensive line will be a huge challenge for USU’s defensive linemen.
“The experience level that they have is something we just don’t have right now,” Anderson said of the WSU O-line vs. USU D-line matchup. “We’ve got a lot of guys playing some of their first ball and we’re going to have to grow up very, very quickly.”
Both teams were poor defensively a year ago as the Aggies allowed 35.17 points and 485.3 total yards per game, while the Cougars conceded 38.5 points and 461.8 total yards an outing. Washington State defended the run pretty well, but allowed opponents to average 307.0 yards through the air. The Cougars did force eight fumbles last season, which ranked first in the Pac-12, so the Aggies must secure the ball Saturday.
USU’s veteran wide receiving corps is looking forward to testing WSU’s secondary. Sound tackling in space is a must for both teams.
“I’ve seen that they like to play man coverage a lot, so that will be good for us to show what we can do one-on-one as a receiving corps,” USU slot target Deven Thompkins said. “I think that this is kind of the perfect matchup for us to really show our abilities and our potential as a receiver group as well.”
Who will throw Thompkins and company the ball is still up in the air. The Aggies have yet to announce a starting quarterback, and same with the Cougars. There’s a good chance USU will use Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley on Saturday, Anderson said during his weekly press conference.
Regardless of who the Cougars trot out at quarterback — — whether it’s incumbent Jayden de Laura or Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano — — Rice has been around long enough to expect the unexpected.
“The first game is always chaos,” Rice said. “Everybody’s got their own game plan for what they think we’re going to run, so we’ve got to be prepared for really anything they could throw at us. They could come out in three tight end sets and we would not be ready for it, but we would have adjustments ready for that, so we kind of have a lot of things ready just in case they throw something different at us. We kind of know what to expect, but are ready for anything.”
NOTES: The Aggies are 3-6 in their last nine season openers and 10-8 in their last 18 road games. ... The Cougars are allowing 100 percent capacity for their home games this season. ... WSU will also play Utah and BYU in ‘21.