One college football team controls its own destiny in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference, while the other is fighting to stay relevant in a very competitive West Division.
However, both programs have found a way to win some important games over the past few weeks and, in many aspects, play a similar brand of football. Indeed, it should be an intriguing matchup when Utah State hosts Hawaii on Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium. The opening kickoff from Merlin Olsen Field is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the Mountain West contest will be televised by Spectrum Sports.
USU head coach Blake Anderson implored Aggie fans, during Monday's press conference, to come out in droves to his team's second to last home game of the 2021 campaign. The Aggies (5-2, 3-1 MW) have bounced back from back-to-back loses at home to Boise State and BYU by narrowly defeating Mountain West foes UNLV and Colorado State. USU's three wins in league play have been by a combined 10 points.
"By the way, we need a bunch of people," said Anderson, who squad is currently in first place in the Mountain Division with four conference games remaining. "... This is another great (game). Hey, standing room only would be awesome. ... Where else would you want to be than 1 p.m. on Saturday in Cache Valley than right here helping us beat Hawaii?"
It's been an up-and-down season for Hawaii, which got off to a 1-3 start, but has prevailed in three of its last four games. The Warriors (4-4, 1-2) are coming off a 48-34 victory at home over New Mexico State last Saturday. Hawaii, which beat NMSU on the road earlier this fall, was able to pull away from the visiting Aggies, thanks in large part to pick-sixes of 79 and 75 yards, respectively.
The Warriors still have aspirations of representing the West Division in the Mountain West championship game. They will surely have to win out to realize that goal. Hawaii's other games this season are against undefeated San Diego State (home), winless UNLV (road), Colorado State (home) and Wyoming (road).
“It’s like we’re getting ready for the playoffs,” Hawaii safety Eugene Ford said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s like win or go home. The mentality is to go 1-0 every week, so right now our opponent is Utah State. So our main focus is Utah State. Nothing more than that. Right now, we’re just focused on Saturday."
Like the Aggies, the Warriors welcomed back the lion's share of their starting lineup from the COVID-19 shortened season of 2020. Hawaii returned seven offensive starters and all 11 of their defensive starters from last year's squad that went 5-4 and beat Houston, 28-14, in the New Mexico Bowl.
That was Todd Graham's first season at the Hawaii helm, although his coaching career is extensive, with head coaching stops at Arizona State (2012-17), Pittsburgh (2011), Tulsa (2007-10) and Rice (2006). Graham and Anderson are quite familiar with each other.
"I was at Southern Miss when he was at Tulsa, and we had some track meets and some really, really fun and competitive games," Anderson said. "We got the best of him, he got the best of us. ... (His teams) have always been really creative, but you've got to look at his career and how he just rose up the (coaching) ranks and ended up at the Power 5 level with a really physical, competitive football team, you've got to have a lot of respect for that."
Saturday's showdown has the potential to be a shootout, although both defenses have game-changing performers. Case in point: The Aggies rank second in the Mountain West in total offense (464.7 yards per game), while the Warriors are fourth (422.5 ypg), plus both teams have found a good, effective balance running and throwing the ball. Additionally, USU is 10th in the conference in total defense (445.9 ypg), barely ahead of Hawaii (448.3 ypg). The bottom three teams in the league are only separated by three yards per game. The two programs are also 10th (USU) and 11th (Hawaii) in the MW in scoring defense at 28.7 and 31.8 points an outing, respectively.
The Aggies are still searching for their first complete-game performance of the season. USU was rock solid in all three facets of the game during its season-opening 26-23 victory at Washington State, but ultimately wasn't very efficient at scoring points. That's been a recurring problem for the Aggies this season as they have failed to score on eight of 26 trips to the red zone, plus only 10 of those possessions have culminated with touchdowns.
Conversely, Hawaii has found paydirt on 18 of 30 trips inside the red zone, plus has booted field goals on eight other occasions for a red zone conversion rate of 26 for 30.
"I'm not sure there's a formula for that," Anderson said when asked about putting together a complete game. "Some of it is the opponent, some of it is just the ebb and flow of a game, good calls, bad calls, everything in between. ... You just have to go to work every day and hope that it clicks on Saturday. Some weeks are better and easier, and in (other games) some matchups are better and more favorable than others. But finding a way to win, that's a skill as well and that's the thing this team has found a way to do."
Per usual, finishing on the plus side of the turnover margin will be a big key to USU's success — or lack thereof — Saturday, but that is extra important in this particular game. That's because Hawaii's defense has forced an impressive 18 turnovers this season, which ranks first in the Mountain West and fourth nationally. Unfortunately for the Warriors, they have canceled out that success by turning the ball over a whopping 19 times.
The Aggies won the turnover margin by a 2-1 count in their wins over UNLV and CSU, which was an encouraging sign for a team that only had one combined takeaway compared to five giveaways in the aforementioned setbacks to BSU and BYU.
USU quarterback Logan Bonner will need to be disciplined against a Hawaii defense that has allowed 297.00 yards per game through the air, but has gotten an notable 10 interceptions from seven different athletes. Bonner has been picked off at least once in every game this season, but has also made his share of big plays.
"Yeah, I'm looking forward just to playing them in general," Bonner said. "I think they're a great team, they fly around, they're really disciplined, they make some plays like you said. Watching them on tape, I think they have really good ball skills on the back end (of their defense) and I think they play really hard, so I'm really excited for our guys to go against them and I think it's going to be a really good challenge."
Likewise, Aggie striker Ajani Carter is looking forward to squaring off against an opponent that likes to spread the field and distribute the ball to their playmakers in space, which is also USU's offensive strategy. Hawaii has one of the most versatile and dynamic playmakers in the MW, if not the country, in Calvin Turner Jr., who has caught 44 passes for 514 yards and two TDs so far this season, plus has seven rushing TDs in 2021 and is his team's primary kickoff and punt returner.
"It's fun to play guys that want to throw the ball and test us out, test us out on the (perimeter)," said Carter, who is tied with safety Shaq Bond for second on the team with a pair of INTs this season. "But, I mean, at the end of the day we're going to play hard. It doesn't matter if they want to run it or throw it."
GAME NOTES: The Aggies are 4-0 against the Warriors since joining the Mountain West and have won five straight games in the series. ... Hawaii is 3-1 at home this season — the lone setback was by four points to San Jose State (17-13) — but just 1-3 on the road. In all fairness, all three of those loses on the mainland were to conference championship-contending teams in UCLA, Oregon State and Nevada.