LOGAN — In its 50th — and likely final — year as a football league, the Western Athletic Conference will be forever remembered as the Wild West of college football. It is where LaVell Edwards' BYU teams helped revolutionize the passing game and where Boise State busted the BCS with trick plays and a wide-open offense. While offense and points may be the lasting legacy of the conference, Utah State is hoping to send it off with a different kind of champion: an old-school, hard-nosed, defensive juggernaut.
The 2012 Aggies are the team that fans had envisioned when defensive mastermind Gary Andersen was hired as head coach in December 2008. The offense is effective and balanced, and the defense has gone from being one of the softest in the country to one of the strongest. In Andersen's first year, the defense allowed 455 yards a game. After steady improvement each season, the Aggies now rank 11th in the nation, giving up an average of only 274 yards per contest.
Many thought the Aggies would take a step back on defense after losing linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-round NFL draft pick and the school's all-time leading tackler. Despite that departure, the unit has gotten bigger, faster, stronger and smarter at nearly every position.
"Bobby is a great player, and we all know that. I am just doing what I can to help the team," said junior linebacker Zach Vigil on taking over for Wagner. "We have other great middle linebackers like Tavaris McMillian, Jake Doughty and Cade Cowdin, and they are all stepping up and playing really good football right now."
While Vigil is shrugging off the spotlight, he has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. The former two-time all-state honoree from Clearfield High had collected just four tackles in two seasons entering the 2012 campaign. Now four games into this season, Vigil is second on the team with 29 tackles — and he has three sacks and a blocked punt. With great play and a fiery attitude, Vigil has quickly become one of the leaders on the defense.
"He is very smart, very intense and very emotional. He is our leader that way," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said of Vigil. "I look for Zach to pick up the boys when we need some picking up. He is an inspirational guy with his hits and his play."
In his first year at Utah State, Aranda has seamlessly melded into the defensive coaching staff and, with excellent game plans, has brought the defense to another level, especially early in games. The Aggie defense has been near impenetrable in the first half, having allowed only nine points and no touchdowns before halftime.
Having a great coaching staff that is all on the same page has made a difference, but the credit always goes back to the players, says Andersen.
"They've practiced consistent, they believe in their coaches and it's important to them," Andersen said. "It is an unselfish crew that is not counting their reps, they are making their reps count and when they get in there it is kind of a race to the football. I'm proud of the way those kids have played."
While the coaching staff is happy with the defensive results so far, they still see plenty of room for improvement. The defense allowed more big plays than they would have liked against Colorado State, and Andersen and company were not happy the second-team defense could not keep the Rams out of the end zone in the fourth quarter. They also aren't generating enough big plays defensively with just one interception and two fumble recoveries on the season.
"They can get better," Andersen said. "I've never been on a defense that can't get better. They will have high expectations of what that next step is for them on the defensive side. They are playing at a high level, but I know that they expect even more."