The Aggies are fine, pundits say.
Without Chuckie Keeton, they may not advance to the Mountain West Conference championship, but they will qualify for the postseason, they argue.
Their conclusion: with remaining opponents as easy as USU’s, Matt Wells can’t help but guide his team to a bowl game in his first season at the helm.
Injuries and yes, the schedule that prognosticators like to demean suggest otherwise.
Have these experts not realized that USU has been outscored 55-30 in the seven quarters since Keeton limped off the field with his left knee torn up?
Have they not realized that USU also lost running back Joe Hill against BYU — and the week before that, it lost starting offensive lineman Kyle Whimpey, and the week since, it lost starting tight end D.J. Tialavea? All of them are gone for the season — and the next backfield threat, the re-emerged Joey DeMartino, is hardly holding up. Even Craig Harrison, Keeton’s replacement against the Cougars — the signal-caller who isn’t even starting this week against New Mexico — “can barely throw the football,” offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven told the Deseret News on Tuesday.
Perhaps 19-year-old freshman Darell Garretson, who is starting this week at New Mexico, will be able to deliver the Aggies as Adam Kennedy did in 2011. Now an Arkansas State quarterback, Kennedy is known for lifting USU to a five-game winning streak and the program’s first bowl berth in 14 years following a Keeton injury. It’s true that the combined records of opponents are similar: five opponents were a combined 19-24 when Kennedy took over, compared to 15-20 among six teams when Harrison started against Boise State.
Aside from Kennedy having two years of collegiate playing experience on Garretson, the main difference: those who were supposed to be playing with Kennedy were. They weren’t hobbled on the sidelines. Kennedy handed the ball off to three future NFL running backs that season; he wasn’t missing one-and-a-half pretty good ones. Kennedy threw to a tight end who signed after the season as an NFL free agent; who knows if Tialavea’s replacements will be able to say as much. Kennedy had all of his offensive line (one started nearly three dozen consecutive games).
Most importantly: have they not realized that if the Aggies are not world-beaters, they may not be cupcake-eaters, either?
Seven quarters — five with Harrison and two with Garretson — have been enough to learn this: the offense sans Keeton (and Whimpey and Hill and Tialavea and a fully fledged DeMartino) is dysfunctional — and even a defense that, despite all its veterans (seven seniors), allowed Boise State to score 15 points above the defense’s average through six games.
That clear, it’s not like New Mexico and Colorado State (Nov. 23) will be walks in the park, and UNLV (Nov. 9) and Wyoming (Nov. 30) have been establishing themselves as two of the better teams in the Mountain West Conference. (With the Aggies battered and bruised, the Cowboys are in fact Boise State’s top competitor in the league’s Mountain Division.)
The Lobos are 2-4 but with two one-touchdown losses, including one last weekend at Wyoming. UNM throttled rival New Mexico State 66-17 the week before that.
Colorado State is also 2-4 but with a three-point loss at Tulsa and a seven-point defeat against San Jose State, whose quarterback, David Fales, is among the best signal-callers in the nation.
UNLV would normally provide a break for a battered team desperately in need of one — the Rebels have just one winning season in the past 18. This season, however, they are 4-2 and riding a four-game winning streak, having beaten New Mexico in Albuquerque on Sept. 28. They also get the Aggies in Las Vegas.
Wyoming? The Cowboys may prove to be as good as any team USU plays this fall. They surprisingly got doubled up Sept. 28 at Texas State, but their only other loss in six contests was a three-point nail-biter at Nebraska, which is 5-1 and atop the Big Ten Legends Division at 2-0. They pounded Air Force in Colorado Springs (56-23) similar to how USU did (52-20). Brett Smith will make the Aggies wish for their own star quarterback to return: the junior had a school-record 511 yards against the Falcons to earn co-national player of the week honors by College Football Performance Awards. He is an All-America candidate.
USU will beat Hawaii — Norm Chow’s Warriors are 0-6 and the Nov. 2 game is at Romney Stadium.
Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot.
The Aggies have lost too much, too soon. In relying on a young gunslinger to try to salvage the season, the USU coaching staff is making their team’s 2013 campaign look all too much like the one a certain team south of Logan experienced last year: Travis Wilson and the Utes couldn’t quite recover from the loss of Jordan Wynn.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan