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Dreams of a Mountain West championship are very much alive for one college football team, while the other is desperately trying to salvage a once promising season.

There’s no question Utah State and Wyoming have a lot to play for when the Aggies welcome the Cowboys to Maverik Stadium for Saturday’s pivotal Senior Night game. The opening kickoff from Merlin Olsen Field is scheduled for 6 p.m. and Mountain West showdown will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.

A victory would keep USU (8-2, 5-1) in the driver’s seat in the Mountain Division with just one week remaining in the regular season, while Wyoming (5-5, 1-5) is fighting for its postseason life. The Cowboys, who got off to a 4-0 start, will likely need to upset the Aggies, and then defeat Hawaii at home next week to secure a bowl bid. A 6-6 Wyoming team would probably be left out of the bowl picture, especially one with a 2-6 record in conference play.

“Obviously the game is huge for us,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “We need to continue to stay out in front and control our destiny to get to the championship game in a few weeks, and we just can't have a letdown after a big, emotional win on the road (last week against San Jose State) because these guys are well coached and we saw at the first of the year that they're more than capable of putting up a lot of points.

“... Even though they've lost a couple of conference games, they've played well at times, in spurts. I thought they had every chance to beat Boise (State last week). Without the interception, they're going down and moving the ball well. They put Colorado State in a bind all day long and just ran the ball at them in a way that we weren't able to do. So they are very, very dangerous and it's another huge game for us. At this point in the season, they're all huge, but they present a lot of problems and I think Craig Bohl does a phenomenal job, has had an unreal career and they're going to be ready to play. And I know they're fighting for bowl eligibility, so they're going to be dangerous for us in a lot of different ways.”

Quite frankly, it’s been a frustrating season for a Wyoming team that had high hopes after returning 20 of its 22 offensive and defensive starters from a year ago. The Cowboys were picked to finish second in the Mountain Division in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll. Instead, Wyoming is tied with New Mexico for last place in the division, and the Lobos beat the Cowboys head to head.

Conversely, the Aggies have far exceeded expectations following the disastrous COVID-19 shortened season of 2020. USU went 1-5 a year ago — a big reason why it was projected to place fifth in the division.

And while the two teams are definitely trending in opposite directions, they are not necessarily separated by a lot. After all, the Aggies have overcome double-digit deficits in seven of their eight victories, including all five games on the road. On the flip side, four of Wyoming’s losses have been by 11 points or fewer. Additionally, the Cowboys haven’t been blown out in any of their five Mountain West setbacks.

The Cowboys have a fighting chance essentially every time they step on the field because of their continued excellence on defense. Wyoming has limited Montana State, Ball State, Fresno State, New Mexico and Colorado State to fewer than 20 points this season, plus has held four of its other opponents to 27 points or fewer.

The Cowboys currently rank first in the Mountain West and fourth among all FBS programs in pass defense (162.6 yards per game), plus fourth in the MW and 27th nationally in total defense (330.8 ppg). Wyoming’s defense has also scored a trio of touchdowns this season, which is tied for the No. 8 spot nationally.

“They play phenomenal defense,” Anderson said. “(They're) not afraid to challenge you in man coverage and get up in your face, (which is) something we don't see all the time. Maybe one of the best linebackers in the country (in Chad Muma) running from sideline to sideline, and (they have) a big, physical front on both sides of the ball.”

Indeed, Muma is the engine behind Wyoming’s rock solid defense. The senior linebacker has intercepted three passes this fall — two of which returned to the house — and is the Mountain West’s leading tackler with 103. Muma averaged 11.8 tackles an outing last year, which ranked third nationally.

“We're going to have to minimize Muma's ability at the line scrimmage, hopefully get some misdirection going at him, put his eyes in some conflict,” Anderson said. “And then the front is going to dictate really both sides of the ball. If we can play well up front on both sides then it allows you to stay in the kind of numbers and down and distances you want to be in.”

Wyoming’s prolific pass defense will surely be tested by an Aggie offense that ranks first in the Mountain West in total offense (468.4 ypg) and third in passing offense (315.2 ypg). USU quarterback Logan Bonner has tossed 12 touchdowns in his last three games and now holds down the No. 3 spot in the conference with 25 TD passes — only three behind Nevada’s Carson Strong and Fresno State’s Jake Haener.

“They do a great job with their spacing,” Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl was quoted by WyoSports. “As you look at their football team and how they attack defenses, they spread the field out all over, and they have weapons to utilize it. Bonner had a heck of a career at Arkansas State, and he has a great understanding of their offense and puts the ball where it needs to be.

“As a result of that, you sometimes work so hard on defending the pass, and the numbers don’t lie — they’re able to run the football, as well. It’s a real challenge to be able to take away that space and make plays, then also limit their running game. That’s what makes their offense so prolific. They have good players, they have good scheme, and they utilize their players and their scheme well.”

The Cowboys typically rely on a ball control style of offense when they prevail, although they did explode for 50 and 45 points in back-to-back wins over Northern Illinois and Ball State. Wyoming has struggled offensively for the most part in Mountain West action, though, as it mustered up 14 points or fewer against Air Force, Fresno State, New Mexico and Boise State. The Cowboys were held scoreless by the Bulldogs and only managed one field goal against the Lobos.

Wyoming did amass an impressive 385 yards on the ground in its lone conference victory — a 31-17 triumph over visiting Colorado State on Nov. 6. The Cowboys were also very competitive last weekend at Boise State, which fully took advantage of a costly interception by young Wyoming quarterback Levi Williams and ultimately prevailed by a 23-13 scoreline.

The Cowboys only average 342.0 yards of total offense an outing, and 186.0 of those come on the ground. Wyoming has an all-conference running back in Xazavian Valladay — only the second player in program history with more than 3,000 career rushing yards — plus they have four seniors starting on the offensive line, including first-team all-league center Kegan Cryder.

“Craig's going to come in and find out real quick if you can play physical football,” Anderson said. “We were tested this way against UNLV, we were tested this way against Colorado State. I think it looks similar. There's obviously some subtle differences, but it's going to be a challenge. Can we play that brand of football and play it well, and then defend the big shot play (through the air) when it comes. That's where you hold your breath.”

Fortunately for the Aggies, they have made tremendous strides in defending the run this season. USU was allowing 204.7 yards per game on the ground a few weeks ago, but has stymied its last three opponents to the tune of a combined 73 yards on 79 attempts. Fourteen Aggie sacks during that timespan have certainly helped.

Prior to Saturday’s game, the Aggies will honor 15 seniors in offensive lineman Demytrick Ali’ifua, defensive end Jaylin Bannerman, safety Shaq Bond, wide receiver Brandon Bowling, linebacker Cash Gilliam, DE Nick Heninger, OL Maisen Knight, cornerback Kyle Mayberry, LB Kevin Meitzenheimer, defensive tackle Marcus Moore, WR Jordan Nathan, LB Justin Rice, WR/kickoff returner Savon Scarver, tight end Carson Terrell and WR Derek Wright.

With the exception of Bowling, Knight, Mayberry, Knight and Rice, all of these seniors persevered through the one-win season of ’20 and have been rewarded with the nation’s biggest turnaround. USU, Michigan State, Michigan and Northern Illinois have all won seven more games than they did a year ago.

“Well, I think what they've been through just in the last couple of years, it obviously didn't go the way they wanted it to,” Anderson said. “And then they probably weren't real excited to see me walk in the room the first day I was announced (as the head coach), and that was OK. I've been honest with them, I get it. You know, I think they had things they wanted to see done and it didn't, but I'd love to see them have a great day. They're going to remember Saturday one way or the other for the rest of their lives. You remember that last game at home, you just do, and Senior Day is special, so I'd love for it to be a day that they can really remember as a pleasant experience. ... There may not be a group that deserves it more than they do, considering all they've been through.

“They're responded remarkably, in my opinion. They could have made this transition extremely difficult because it didn't go the way they wanted to and they've been through a lot. But this season's possible because of the 16 guys that chose to come back and play another (season), chose not to transfer and they chose to buy in and show true leadership on a weekly basis for a bunch of guys they really didn't really know. Now, we've become close. I love them to death and I think our locker room is extremely close, but that's been a process and it didn't happen overnight. And they get the credit for it because they could have fought it every step of the way, and we'd be looking at a completely different season.”

Indeed, it’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Aggies, and they would become just the eighth team in program history to win at least nine games in a season should they prevail Saturday.

“To me, that just shows how we feel about each other as a team — the tightness, the relationships we all have with each other to go in game in, game out to be where we are through the adversity, through everything that we've been through,” USU starting right guard Quazzel White said during Monday’s press conference. “And it just shows how we are as a group. We never give up, we always keep fighting and that's what I love about this group so much. We've gone through a lot of things, a lot of adversity and you never really see it come melting down. Whether the offense messes up or makes it hard for the defense ... we never get on each other. We always feel like we have a fighting chance and that's what I love about this team.”

NOTES: The Aggies have won six of their last eight matchups with the Cowboys, and the last three games have been decided by eight points or fewer. This is the fourth-most played series in USU history and the Aggies have defeated the Cowboys more than any other team. ... USU is 70-40-3 all-time on Senior Day. ... The two teams didn’t square off for the first time in eight years last season due to a COVID contact tracing within USU’s program.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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