There’s no doubt it’s been an extremely gratifying start to the 2021 college football campaign for Utah State, especially considering how rough the COVID-19 abbreviated season of 2020 was.
Thrilling come-from-behind victories on the road over Washington State and Air Force, sandwiched between a 24-point triumph over North Dakota at home, have the Aggies dreaming big. Quite frankly, USU has aspirations of capturing a Mountain West championship.
The road to a conference title will be a lot less bumpy if the Aggies can find a way to beat their next opponent. Perennial Mountain West contender Boise State will be in Logan for an early-season Saturday showdown. Opening kickoff from Maverik Stadium is scheduled for 10 a.m. and the game will be televised on CBS.
“It does not get any easier, clearly,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “We’ve got a great opponent coming in. We get to play at home, which is good and then, while people are listening, I’ll tell you, we need it packed and loud and crazy. I know we still have some tickets available. I hope they’re going out the door like crazy right now. We need the student section on point, everything that we can do to try to create a hostile environment for Boise coming in. We need help, so I’m calling all Aggie nation to come out in big numbers for an early Saturday kickoff.”
Beating the Broncos has always been a massive challenge for the Aggies, who have only managed to outpoint their rivals to the north-west once this century. Boise State is 17-1 against Utah State since 1997.
The Broncos are reeling a bit, having lost two games this early in the season for the first time since 2005. Very rarely does BSU lose two of its first three contests, but those two setbacks were by a combined six points.
Simply put, the Broncos are only a couple of plays away from having the same record as the Aggies, and this is their Mountain West opener, so it’s a clean slate for the men in blue.
“The beautiful thing is our goal is always about the conference and that’s what is right in front of us now,” BSU coach Andy Avalos said. “It’s time to lock in on that.”
A couple of impressive streaks are on the line for the Broncos, who have prevailed in 21 straight conference openers, plus have won 19 consecutive games against opponents from the Mountain Division. BSU was picked to win the Mountain Division for the ninth year in a row.
It doesn’t matter if they’re 1-2 or 3-0, defeating the Broncos is always a daunting task for the Aggies, or anyone else in the Mountain Division, for that matter.
“Well, they’re built well,” Anderson said. “... Obviously, they’ve got a ton of notoriety over the last 10 years or so, maybe more, and they’ve recruited well due to that. And they’ve built a great program. I don’t expect that to change, although they’ve proven that they can be beaten if you play great ball.”
The Aggies are brimming with confidence offensively as they rank first in the conference and third nationally in total offense (563.3). USU amassed more than 600 total yards against North Dakota and Air Force.
Replicating that kind of success against BSU most likely isn’t feasible, though.
“(Boise State has) collectively the best defense we will have played hands down,” Anderson said. “It is a huge challenge for our offense to extend drives and finish in the end zone. They are going to challenge you basically in every area and the matchups are difficult all across the board. Length, size, speed, the physicalness, there’s just not a weakness that you see.”
Boise State arguably has the best secondary USU will face all season long, plus it has a pair of all-conference-caliber linebackers at its disposal in Ezekiel Noa and Riley Whimpey. Per usual, the Broncos have some talented guys in the defensive trenches, but they are a bit shorthanded at that position right now, and it’s been a bit of a struggle for them anyway. Case in point: BSU is only averaging 2.0 sacks per game and has been allowing 201.7 yards rushing as outing.
That could be problematic against a USU offense that has not only aired the ball out so far this season (357.0 passing yards a contest), but has also enjoyed consistent success on the ground. Led by Oregon State transfer Calvin Tyler Jr., the Aggies have averaged 206.3 yards rushing per game, plus 5.0 yards per carry. Former USU tailback Jaylen Warren — — who has a similar build as Tyler Jr. — — amassed 218 yards on 32 carries in Oklahoma State’s 21-20 road win over BSU last Saturday.
USU has also done a good job of wearing out the opposition in the second half and playing its best football with the game on the line. After all, the Aggies have outscored their opponents 51-10 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Broncos have struggled mightily on offense in the second half and they have scored two touchdowns after halftime in three games.
Will those trends continue for both teams Saturday? Anderson is certainly hopeful that’s the case, but knows the talented and experienced Broncos — — they welcomed back 16 returning starters — — are due for a breakthrough.
“There’s not a lot of matchups in our favor starting out, you know, (with) play one,” Anderson said. “... We don’t necessarily have to be the best team (on) snap one, (but) we’ve got to be the consistent team and be able to still be there and find a way to get the job done. So, I think our kids know that and believe that, and they’ll be ready for this particular opponent.”
Like the Broncos, the Aggies are hungry to prove themselves Saturday. Despite winning their first three games for the first time since 1978, the Aggies are still nine-point underdogs at home. Additionally, the lion’s share of USU’s current roster was at Albertsons Stadium when BSU jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first half and coasted to a 42-13 victory over the Aggies a year ago.
Indeed, Utah State has plenty of reasons to be motivated.
“I think it was a challenging game for us overall,” USU defensive tackle Marcus Moore said of last year’s season-opening setback to BSU. “Going into it this year, I believe that 2020 is in the past and I do believe that we are a new team.”
Regardless of how much the Aggies have improved, they will still need to be on top of their game in order to extend their winning streak in the month of September to 12. USU will especially need to be stingy and smart with the football, especially against a BSU defense that has already forced nine turnovers — — five interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
“They’re going to test you in every area, every phase,” Anderson said. “... I know our guys are going to be fired up and excited about it, but we’re going to have to play sound in every area, or you get exposed.”
USU hasn’t competed in a game televised on CBS since losing to Fresno State, 24-17, in the 2013 Mountain West championship contest. Indeed, this is a rare opportunity for the Aggies, although it’s not something Anderson really concerns himself with.
“You know, I honestly really don’t think about it a whole lot,” Anderson said. “I will say that any time you can go out and play on a national stage and represent the university and the logo and the brand well, it obviously helps in recruiting. But we’re focused on the opponent and it just so happens that there’s going to be a few more cameras maybe this week than normal.”