Two weeks ago, the Aggies were in the midst of a massive struggle to achieve bowl eligibility.
After back-to-back nailbiting wins over Fresno State and Wyoming, Utah State’s football team has seemingly salvaged its season. A Mountain Division title is still a possibility for the Aggies, but they must win their final two games, starting this weekend against nemesis Boise State.
The Broncos have won 15 of their last 16 games against the Aggies, and USU will attempt to buck that trend when it welcomes No. 20 BSU to Maverik Stadium. Opening kickoff for Saturday’s showdown is slated for 8:30 p.m. The pivotal Mountain West game will be televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network.
“Boise State is a tremendous football team year in and year out,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “They are the foundation of consistency within this league, obviously. ... It’s a great program. It’s not a good program, it’s a great program. We’re excited to get the opportunity to compete against them in a great setting at our place. It’s elimination game number three for the Aggies. We have passed the first two tests, so here we go again.”
This will be the third time in the last six seasons the Aggies and Broncos have squared off in late November with Mountain West title implications on the line. Boise State reigned supreme the first two times, but both games were contested at Albertsons Stadium.
The Aggies (6-4, 5-1 MW) are ecstatic to host the Broncos (9-1, 6-0) in a meaningful late November game.
“It means a lot. You know, Boise is a tough team, they’re a great team and I’ve never beaten them being out on the field playing with my boys,” USU redshirt senior defensive tackle Christopher ’Unga said. “And so it means a lot to me to put on the pads one last time and have a run at them, and throw all of our blows, because this is all (us seniors have) got left, so we’ve got to give them every shot we’ve got.”
‘Unga was one of eight current USU players on the roster when the Aggies last defeated Broncos, although only one of them, Aaron Dalton, actually played in the game. The Aggies rolled to 52-26 victory on Merlin Olsen Field during the 2015 campaign.
Utah State will be honoring its 15 seniors in Saturday’s home finale, and junior linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer is hungry to help this senior class celebrate a win over the premier program in the Mountain West — one that has posted a winning record in 22 consecutive seasons. The Aggies had a golden opportunity to beat a short-handed BSU squad in the 2018 regular season finale for both teams, but the Broncos emerged victorious, 33-24.
“That game was hurtful because we were one game away from going to the Mountain West championship, and we couldn’t do it,” Meitzenheimer said. “So, now that I’m more a part of it, I have to step up in a huge way so I can send my seniors out with a bang. We have to win this game and win the next one so we can achieve our goal of going to the Mountain West championship and possibly winning it. I have to do it for my seniors.”
The Aggies have outpointed eight straight Mountain West opponents at home and have won 39 of their last 49 games on Merlin Olsen field. Defeating USU in Logan is a challenge, but one BSU head coach Bryan Harsin is looking forward to.
“Really, the focus is being on the road in that environment,” Harsin said. “You know, it’s tough to win there and we’ve got to make sure that we have a great week (of practice) and we get everybody back ready to roll, and we go in there hopefully strong and confident, and go out there and play our best football. That’s the goal.”
One of the biggest question marks surrounding Saturday’s showdown is who will be the starting quarterback for both teams. USU star signal caller Jordan Love left last weekend’s big win over Wyoming during the third quarter with an undisclosed injury.
Redshirt sophomore Henry Colombi directed the Aggie offense for the final 17-plus minutes of game time against the Cowboys, and completed 3 of 6 passes for 35 yards. No. 3 has connected on 47 of 58 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns during his time with the program.
“I think the good thing about Henry ... (is) Henry has stayed mentally ready,” Andersen said. “Just watch him in practice. It’s not like he’s just over there watching the birds fly around, the pigeons up on the pressbox. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s ready. He sees it and he understands it, and I think he’s really playing it out in his mind, so that’s a credit to him.”
Meanwhile, the Broncos started their third-string quarterback, senior Jaylon Henderson, in last week’s 42-9 drubbing of visiting New Mexico. Henderson threw for 292 yards and a trio of touchdowns, and was named the MW Offensive Player of the Week.
BSU’s starting QB, heralded true freshman Hank Bachmeier, has been banged up a couple of times this season. He has started seven games for the Broncos, while sophomore Chase Cord has been the starter on two occasions.
“We’ll have our hands full, regardless of who plays quarterback,” Andersen said. “Who knows who it’s going to be? I guess that’s the million-dollar question for both teams.”
Bachmeier has definitely been his team’s most prolific passer this season, but the Broncos have been plenty dangerous with all their of their QBs piloting a balanced offensive attack. Boise State ranks in the top five in the Mountain West in rushing and passing offense, plus is third in total offense (454.8 yards per game) and first in scoring offense (36.1 points per game).
One of the most intriguing matchups will take place in the trenches. Both offensive lines have struggled at times this season, and both teams have several experienced, talented players in the defensive trenches. Protecting the quarterback will be a challenge for the Aggies and Broncos.
Boise State has been rock solid defensively during most of the 2019 campaign, but did give up 438 yards passing and 42 points to San Jose State, and struggled at times against Florida State and Hawaii. The Broncos rank third in the Mountain West in total defense (338.0 ypg) and have limited six of their opponents to 20 points or fewer.
USU’s defense put together arguably its best defensive performance of the season last weekend against Wyoming, and the Aggies have done a good job as of late at forcing turnovers. USU has 19 takeaways this season and ranks 11st nationally with 10 fumble recoveries.
The Broncos have been much more proficient offensively in the red zone than the Aggies, and that could loom large Saturday. USU has only scored touchdowns on 12 of 36 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line this season, while BSU has found paydirt on 12 of its last 16 forays into the red zone.
A story breaking down the Broncos can be found at hjnews.com.