In front of a national audience on ESPN, Utah State faces the arduous task of traveling to BYU, and winning in a place where they haven’t won at since 1978.
It goes without saying that the Aggies are a 10-point plus underdog going into their rivalry battle for the Old Wagon Wheel Friday night at Provo’s Lavell Edwards Stadium.
But what you might not know is that the one facet of the game where Utah State must shine on this momentous night is in their passing game.
Frankly, it’s been lacking over the past few weeks.
For all the hype that followed USU freshman Chuckie Keeton after he started his career with a huge outing at Auburn, he has struggled mightily to regain that level in home games against Weber State and Colorado State.
Keeton’s inexperience started shining through, and it’s something the Cougar defense–currently ranked a paltry 54th in the land–must be salivating over as it heads into another Rivalry Week.
BYU defensive back Joe Sampson–the one bright spot in a relatively inexperienced BYU secondary–said it’s business as usual for his Cougars.
“We prepare the same for them as any other team. We practice as hard as we can and the best way that we know of. We will just come out and play hard on Friday,” Sampson said.
The Aggies threw for just 465 yards in its first three games, and Keeton–though playing so magnificently against the nationally ranked Tigers–held his own, while compiling good, but not great numbers. Two touchdowns and no interceptions are pretty good for any freshman Division I quarterback.
In particular, Colorado State made it very difficult for Keeton to have time in the pocket, blitzing four or more of their players at the freshman sensation on several occasions.
“If you can pass rush him … finding a way to get in his way and make his clock tick, [it] causes some major issues in the throw game,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said.
But the BYU secondary has been shredded in the first four games, giving up 825 yards, and the defense seems to be struggling. Surely that would be a good omen for the Aggies, right?
Not necessarily. USU wide receiver Eric Moats muffed a late punt that cost the Aggies a chance to win last Saturday’s game in regulation. Andersen was quick to defend Moats from the verbal abuse he took from Aggie fans after the CSU loss.
“For situations to arise for him [Moats] to have to take that, it hurts him to make that mistake, worse than it hurts any of us, trust me. That is basically a hometown rival of his, it is a school he grew up watching and had an opportunity to participate in a victory of them, so that is very, very difficult for [Eric]. All the other stuff is fine. It is what it is, but I don’t agree with the, if you will, verbal attacks on [Eric Moats]. It is unfair,” Andersen said.
Moats was the Aggies go-to receiver last year, but seems to be struggling in 2011. He is just the fourth leading receiver on the team–JUCO transfer Matt Austin is the first, with 151 yards on 10 catches and one touchdown.
Utah State receivers by the numbers:
GP No. Yds Avg TD Long Avg/G
Austin, Matt 3 10 151 15.1 1 49 50.3
Jacobs, Chuck 3 9 76 8.4 1 29 25.3
Morrison, Stanley 3 5 45 9.0 0 17 15.0
Moats, Eric 3 3 39 13.0 0 25 13.0
Even Stanley Morrison seems to be struggling this season, and while it may be the youth of Keeton that is limiting the passing game of Utah State, the Aggies need to shore up this facet of their offense before WAC play begins in a few weeks.
Good news for the Aggies, however: A bevy of JUCO transfers and players who sat the bench while the last wave came through are now starting for the Cougars, and the transformation in BYU’s secondary hasn’t been pretty.
The Cougars have allowed over 200 yards per contest. Those pass defense numbers–actually ranking BYU among the top 20 in the first two weeks–have ballooned in the last two.
Against Utah and UCF, the Cougars allowed 200-plus yard passing games for the first time this season, but against Utah State, some believe the Cougars–who use an over pursuing, hungry, youthful secondary–could do as well as they did against Ole Miss and Texas.
In the air, the Cougars have some weapons. While Jake Heaps is certainly going through his sophomore year slump–just 855 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions bear that out–he has some nice accompaniments to throw to.
BYU’s own throw game has served itself better than its abysmal running back tandem, with Cody Hoffman and freshman Ross Apo stepping in as Heaps’ main targets.
“I like the way he [Heaps] played. There are still some things we can improve. We can certainly improve on third-downs and accuracy there. I thought he stepped forward and was managing the game and I like the way he threw it [against UCF],” BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Though it’s not known if Apo–who is battling concussion symptoms he suffered against UCF–will play on Friday, you would have to think that Apo will do everything in his power to take the field.
Apo has had 140 yards and three touchdowns, and Hoffman, who ironically has received less publicity than Apo–though he was Heaps’ main guy last year–is another player the Aggies’ experienced secondary will have to keep an eye on.
Hoffman leads the Cougars with 182 yards yet hasn’t scored a receiving touchdown, but it was his special teams touchdpwn last week that helped give BYU an important win over UCF. The Cougars will need all they can get from Hoffman and Co.
BYU receivers by the numbers:
GP No. Yds Avg TD Lg Avg/g
Hoffman, Cody 4 14 182 13.0 0 37 45.5
Apo, Ross 4 12 140 11.7 3 32 35.0
Jacobson, McKay 4 12 92 7.7 0 19 23.0
Di Luigi, JJ 4 12 81 6.8 0 14 20.0
The key word–and calling card–is the Aggies defense, led by its constantly blitzing linebackers, seniors Levi Koskan and captain Bobby Wagner.
Though the Aggies don’t have one interception between their vaunted defense this season, the blitz packages that Andersen has liked to draw up since his BCS-busting days at Utah also hold true in Logan.
Between the linebackers–and even the cornerbacks and safeties–Utah State has 10 sacks. Koskan accounts for 2.5 on his own, while JUCO Maurice Alexander has two. Five others, including Wagner, have one each.
Utah State comes into Friday’s contest boasting the No. 12 defense in the country, and the reason for such a distinction comes from the Aggies’ ability to mix up coverages, something that Andersen has been doing since his days with the Utes.
BYU could throw the ball against the Utes, however–as Heaps had over 300 yards passing in the Holy War, though he threw two interceptions–though the Aggies present a different kind of problem. They allow just 187 yards per game and through three games, have given up just 561.
Utah State has experience all over its defense, and BYU has inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver. On the flip side, Utah State has a freshman quarterback going against a new secondary.
Whatever happens, it’s numbers that will bear out some facet of this all-important game on Friday.
Utah State at BYU
Friday September 30