A rare opportunity awaits Utah State's football team this week.
For only the second time in program history, USU will host BYU on back-to-back occasions. The Cougars were scheduled to square off against the Aggies last year at Lavell Edwards Stadium, but COVID-19 got in the way.
The two teams will resume their long-standing rivalry Friday at Maverik Stadium --- the 90th installment of a series that began in 1922. Opening kickoff from Merlin Olsen Field is slated for 7 p.m. and the battle for the Old Wagon Wheel for be televised by the CBS Sports Network.
The Cougars outscored the Aggies 21-0 in the second half en route to an impressive 42-14 victory two years at Maverik Stadium, snapping a two-game losing streak to their rivals to the north. BYU and USU have gotten off to strong starts this season and both were undefeated until the Aggies stumbled last week at home against Boise State.
"Yeah, this one means a lot to me," USU wide receiver Derek Wright said. "I know quite a few guys on their team. I was recruited a little bit by them, so this one does mean a lot. I think more importantly, we've just got to make sure that we get better from last week. It's still a long season. I still think that our chances in the Mountain West are good."
The Cougars are 13th in the latest AP Poll, making them the highest-ranked opponent the Aggies have hosted since a 53-21 loss to then-No. 6 Boise State on Nov. 20, 2009. BYU (4-0) has certainly caught the attention of USU head coach Blake Anderson, who asserted the Cougars are "the best team we will have played" during his weekly conference, and also added they're "clearly the best built football team we (will) have played."
Anderson, who is in first first season at the Aggie helm, is from Texas and has spent much of his coaching career in the south and along the east coast. The former Baylor and Sam Houston State player has lived in Cache Valley for less than a year, but is already quite familiar with his program's rivalry against BYU.
"Everybody that I've meet since I moved to town has made it really clear to me how much this rivalry means to them and (that) this is one we've got to win," Anderson said. "I get all of that. I love college ball for rivalries sake. I've been a part of some good rivalries in the past. I'll learn more and more about this one."
And while this is a big game and opportunity for the Aggies, Anderson doesn't want it to overshadow his team's primary objective, which is consistent improvement from top to bottom.
"To me right now, the most important thing is the attitude and the mindset of our football team moving forward, and then making sure we're in the right spot, and that we can't be nearly as focused on BYU as we can on us getting better. There's a lot of good football ahead of this team. I don't want to let one game where we played poorly derail that. I want to focus on us. Now, I want to beat BYU as much as anybody in the Cache Valley, but for probably even different reasons. This just happens to be the next opportunity for our team to show what we're capable of, and we didn't do that Saturday (vs. BSU). And hopefully Friday night we will look like the team that we are really capable of being."
Last Saturday's 27-3 setback to Boise State was extremely frustrating for a USU squad that averaged 48.5 points in its previous two games. The Aggies racked up 317 yards of total offense in the first half against the Broncos, but didn't score any points. A disastrous fake punt early in the third quarter, coupled with a myriad of penalties and a strong defensive performance by BSU was too much for USU to overcome.
A lot of teams would be dejected after a loss like that, but USU defensive end Patrick Joyner Jr. insisted he, for one, is much more motivated than demoralized.
"Oh, I've never been so ready to get back to work after the loss to Boise State," he said. "You know, we came to the game ready. You know, we weren't thinking we were going to lose. We had that mindset that we can't lose and I think us being overly hyped about the game, we went out there and made simple mistakes, and they just took advantage of it. But us coming back this week and having another big opponent is a big thing for us, so I know the guys are ready to get back to work."
The Aggies will certainly need to more much more efficient offensively and disciplined on both sides of the ball than they were a week ago in order to upset the Cougars. In all fairness, USU's defense looked sharp for the most part against Boise State, although the Aggies were whistled for seven defensive penalties.
BYU has been very stingy with the ball so far during the 2021 campaign as it has only turned the ball over twice in four games. Meanwhile, BYU's defense has come up with eight takeaways --- four interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Cougars have won 19 straight games when they've been ahead or even in the turnover margin.
Simply put, winning the turnover battle will be paramount to USU's success --- or lack therefore --- Friday. The Aggies had three costly giveaways against the Broncos --- four if you count the failed fake punt, plus they had another turnover on downs.
Per usual, the Cougars will enjoy a significant size advantage in most of the positional battles. BYU's mammoth offensive line has only allowed three sacks and all four of the Cougars' primary wide receivers are at least 6-foot-2, plus tight end Isaac Rex creates mismatches with his 6-6 frame.
"We're not going to overpower them," said Anderson, whose team ranks 10th nationally in total offense (533.3 yards per game). "We know that. We're going to have to use speed and quickness. I do think some team speed is in our favor, I think quickness is in our favor. Size and power is not, so we've got to try to make it our kind of game on both sides of the ball. ... We've been physically probably outmatched in a couple of these games all year if you looked at just size and strength at power, but our speed and our effort and our execution out in space has allowed us to win three games. It's not going to be any different here. The same plan would have worked Saturday against Boise had we executed better."
When the Aggies have been successful against the Cougars in recent years, they have enjoyed a speed advantage and have exploited it on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. This USU squad has similar capabilities.
"(The Aggies) can do a lot of different things," said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, whose team is coming off a 35-27 victory over South Florida. "You can look at Blake’s past as a coach and you can see what he has done and where he has been. From what we are seeing right now, it’s very similar to what we see with USF. They have two quarterbacks and give them a unique skill set. I’ve been really impressed with how they utilize their strengths. They have a physical offensive line. They have some athletic, explosive athletes. They’ve been able to gain many yards and have explosive plays against difficult teams. Overall, in all three phases, it’s going to be a good matchup."
The Cougars been methodical for the most part on offense this season, but were definitely explosive in the passing game with backup quarterback Baylor Romney a week ago. There's a good chance Jaren Hall will return this week as BYU's starting signal caller, Sitake said, and he is very capable of making plays with his feet and arm.
Regardless of who will orchestrate BYU's offense Friday, it will be a balanced attack --- maybe the most balanced offense USU will face this season. The Cougars have a star running back in Tyler Allgeier and a proven backup in Lopini Katoa.
Both secondaries will surely be tested Friday as the wide receiver position is a strength of both teams. Additionally, the Aggies and Cougars have struggled at times to defend the run, although BYU has been pretty stingy once its opponent approaches the red zone. USU has allowed 5.2 yards per rushing attempt this season, but only 3.9 to opponents outside of Air Force.
Friday's showdown is a blackout for the Aggies and Anderson is counting on a significant home field advantage, which is always a challenge considering how well their opponent's fan base travels. This is BYU's first legitimate road game of the season as its neutral site matchup against Arizona in Las Vegas was contested in front of a pro-Cougar crowd.
"I hope they're disappointed in the result, but not disappointed in the product," Anderson said while addressing USU's fanbase during Monday's press conference. "I think hopefully they've seen enough in the first four games to realize this is a year one of a new (coaching) staff, new systems, new people, a lot of new players and we've already, I think, come out and shown this group is going to play 60 minutes (and that) we're worth coming to watch. ... We need them (more) than ever on Friday night. We needed a packed house, electric, loud. We need to make BYU uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to beat a top 25 team, an in-state opponent and a rival, and hopefully it's sold out and standing room only, and our student section is crazier than ever."
AGGIE NOTES: The Aggies are 5-62 all-time against ranked teams, but 4-8 in their last 12 encounters. ... USU has won eight of its last nine non-conference games at Maverik Stadium. ... This is the second most played series in program history, trailing only USU-Utah (112). ... Wyoming is the only team USU has defeated more times than BYU. The Aggies are 37-49-3 all-time against the Cougars, and 40-26-4 against the Cowboys. ... The Cougars own a 41-25 advantage in the series since the Old Wagon Wheel was added in 1948.