The last time the Aggies lost two games in a row on the gridiron, they bounced back with five straight victories a year ago and ultimately captured a Mountain West championship.
That five-game winning streak took place following Utah State’s bye week and heading into a Mountain West contest against UNLV. Ironically enough, that is the exact same situation the Aggies face in 2022 — only they are reeling a lot more than they did last fall. Case in point: USU is coming off an embarrassing 35-7 loss at home against FCS program Weber State, whereas it lost to perennial bowl teams Boise State and BYU a year ago.
Anderson was pleased with what he saw from his team in its first of two bye weeks this season. Needless to say, it was a much-needed bye for USU, which will be hosting what appears to be a much-improved UNLV squad on Saturday at Maverik Stadium. The Aggies needed a last-minute touchdown to edge the Rebels in Las Vegas, 28-24, last October.
“I appreciate the guys’ responses,” Anderson said during Monday’s press conference. “It’s been good. We’ve had several really good practices, one of our best last night out here, and if we will continue to work that way, this group’s going to get better and get better quickly, and we need to because UNLV is a much better football team than we saw a year ago.”
One thing Anderson was hoping would emerge from his team during the bye was better leadership, and he’s confident his guys have responded to that challenge in a positive way.
“I think accountability is not something that comes super easy,” Anderson said. “Nobody wants to be the one that says, ‘hey, it was my fault,’ nobody wants to take the blame. It’s not society’s way. It’s always somebody’s else fault. I think we had a bunch of guys step in and challenge the team, but also initially just say, ‘man, I’ve got to do better.’ There was a team meeting called by the players themselves. I know several guys, (safety) Hunter Reynolds, (wide receiver) Brian Cobbs, (quarterback) Logan Bonner, (defensive end) Byron Vaughn, guys that spoke up and talked about how they need to be better, how they’re going to be better.”
Athletes like wideout Justin McGriff and running back Calvin Tyler Jr. were others who demonstrated good leadership during the bye week, Anderson said. The head coach also asserted Bonner “gained a tremendous amount of respect from the guys in the room” for his transparency and self-evaluation of his play over the past two games.
Bonner, USU’s single-season record-holder in passing yards (3,628) and touchdown passes (36), only completed 15 of 40 passes for 159 yards and three interceptions, compared to zero TDs, in back-to-back setbacks against Alabama and Weber State. No. 1 blew out his knee in last December’s Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl and underwent ACL surgery the following month.
Anderson reiterated during Monday’s press conference that Bonner’s knee is structurally sound, just like he has a few times this season. The biggest issue on Bonner’s end, Anderson said, is not having enough trust in that knee.
“If you haven’t been through this, I don’t know if it’s possible to truly understand a practice knee compared to a game knee, an early-whistle red jersey knee compared to a live knee in a pocket are two different things,” Anderson said. “He has been open. He is struggling a little bit anxiety wise with truly trusting his body. He deserves the opportunity to prove that he can do it this week.
“He is on a very short leash, he knows that. We can’t continue to play second-guessing what the knee will and won’t do. He’s gotta be able to to move the chains with his feet. He had opportunities to do that last week and the week before, and didn’t. He knows that. He has been extremely critical of his play at that point and this is a pivotal week moving forward. He’s earned the right to show that he can do it and he has been very, very open and transparent with the staff and the team. ... And I expect he’s going to go out and play like the guy we know he is capable of being.
“If he doesn’t, guys, we’re going to move on at quarterback at some point very quickly to Coop (Legas), but we just haven’t been at that point yet. We had to give (Bonner) an opportunity to play himself into the guy we all know he is, so it’s a challenge and he’ll be the first to tell you. (But) I expect this week that we plays his best game (of the season). He has always done his best when his back’s against the wall.”
The Aggies struggled mightily on offense during their two-game skid as they didn’t score any points, plus only averaged 2.3 yards on 57 plays against the Crimson Tide and 3.8 on 75 plays against the Wildcats.
USU’s offense received a big blow last week when starting slot receiver Kyle Van Leeuwen announced on social media that he had sustained a season-ending knee injury. Junior college transfer Terrell Vaughn and redshirt freshman NyNy Davis are listed first and second at the slot position on USU’s most recent depth, with an or between their names.
“We’ve seen glimpses of both of those guys doing good things,” Anderson said. “Watching Terrell on the kickoff return (for a TD against Weber State) shows you what he can do in space.”
The good news for the Aggies is Utah transfer Kyrese Rowan, the son of former USU star running back Emmett White, has recovered from his injury and should now factor into the mix for playing time in the slot, Anderson said. Additionally, tight end Brock Lane is more healthy and is another weapon who can make plays in space. Lane didn’t play the first two games this season and saw limited action against Weber State.
“Getting both of those guys back comes at a good time,” Anderson said of Rowan and Lane. “I think we’re going to have to be smart about how we utilize our group. It’s not the same as last year. We’re going to need to shuffle some guys around, similar to what we did with DT (Deven Thompkins) last year. We would move him inside, outside. I think we’re going to have to do some of the same things with both McGriff and Cobbs and guys that have had more snaps, that have played more. We’re going to have to be more versatile with where they line up, how we utilize them until some of those other guys get experience and get comfortable in a game setting.”
In addition to Van Leeuwen, USU lost another key player to a season-ending injury against Weber State in defensive tackle Phillip Paea. The Michigan transfer started in place of injured veteran Hale Motu’apuaka in that game and suffered an ACL tear while returning an interception in the second quarter. Paea took a helmet to the outside of his knee, Anderson explained.
Fortunately for the Aggies, Motu’apuaka, one of the top defensive tackles in the Mountain West when healthy, was listed by Anderson as “probable” to play this weekend.
“He practiced last night in a limited fashion, did really well,” Anderson said. “I would expect by game day he’s ready to go. We missed him desperately last week. We (didn’t have) Kesi most of the game. That was a challenge as well and, unfortunately, we will be without Phil Paea for the rest of the season.”
Kesi is Poukesi Vakautu, who has been limited by a nagging injury throughout the season. The junior is a starter when healthy, which means the Aggies were missing three of the four defensive tackles on their two-deep during the lion’s share of the Weber State game.
At the conclusion of the aforementioned press conference, Anderson talked about the importance of reaching out to and helping individuals who struggle with their mental health, including depression and suicidal thoughts. This is something near and dear to Anderson’s heart.
“We would welcome the fan base and the valley to join with us over the course of the next week-and-a-half, especially this week, as we promote mental health awareness,” he said. “This is something that our staff, our players have had a lot of conversations about. It’s something that there’s a passion inside our building (for). Clearly, (with) my recent background and what’s gone on in my family is something that they are familiar with, but also a handful of guys on our staff and our players as well.”
Over the next week-and-a-half, USU’s football program will be sharing testimonials over its various social media platforms, which also includes information on where people can turn for help. Anderson’s hope is that fans will “repost, retweet, comment and really just kind of get (a) dialogue (going)” to address these issues. Additionally, players and coaches from USU and UNLV will be wearing green ribbons for Saturday’s game — — green ribbon stickers on the players’ helmets and actual green ribbons on the coaches’ shirts. The green ribbon signifies mental health awareness.
Anderson shared his own experience Monday in a six-plus-minute video on the USU football Twitter handle (@USUFootball), which included the hagtag MentalHealthMatters.