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Dick Harmon: BYU-Utah State game should be a defensive battle again

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 10:29 p.m. MDT

USU's Quarterback Chuckie Keeton looks to pass the ball as BYU and Utah State play Oct. 5 at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) USU's Quarterback Chuckie Keeton looks to pass the ball as BYU and Utah State play Oct. 5 at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Utah State coach Matt Wells is riding a wagon that isn’t just coming around the corner.

Utah State football is a major player in this region, and if anyone around the state wants to pigeonhole the program Gary Andersen helped put together, they’d better lean on the side of dishing out major respect.

BYU will go to Logan Friday to face USU as a one-touchdown underdog, fielding a stellar defense and an offense that's experiencing growing pains while trying to become more balanced.

“We have great respect for them,” said BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. “And I think they respect us.”

The Aggies will run onto the field with a squad that believes it should have defeated Utah and USC on their home fields. The Aggies have a case.

They should be the favorite to win the Mountain West Conference and climb back into the national rankings come the end of October — if Boise State is as vulnerable as some believe.

FILE - BYU's #41 Uani Unga, right, sacks USU's Quarterback Chucki Keeton as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo Utah. BYU has historically played Utah State on the Friday night immediately preceding the autumn LDS General Conference. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) FILE - BYU's #41 Uani Unga, right, sacks USU's Quarterback Chucki Keeton as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo Utah. BYU has historically played Utah State on the Friday night immediately preceding the autumn LDS General Conference. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Friday's game is a solid matchup and a marquee in-state game against two schools who are sold on playing one another and keeping the series going. Salute both of them for having the passion to do what is right.

Both the Cougars and Aggies field defenses that can win games and punish offenses, and — like last year — this year's contest should be a defensive battle. Any big offensive plays, like a Chuckie Keeton breakaway or a Taysom Hill long sprint for a score, could prove to be the difference.

The Cougar offense is amassing an average of 492.5 yards per game, while the Aggie defense is allowing only 315.4.

Conversely, the Aggie offense averages 491 total yards — almost exactly that of the Cougars — while BYU’s defense allows 320 yards per outing.

In other words, these teams mirror each other statistically. The big difference is USU has an established identity as a passing offense; the Cougars do not. And USU has had more success in the red zone.

I think special teams play favors BYU.

This game could be a copy of the two previous outings in terms of being very close at the end. The fact that BYU got to host the last two, and they were narrow 27-24 and 6-3 wins for the Cougars, is fire in the pit for the Aggies.

"Honestly, we obviously want some redemption for last year,” said USU offensive tackle Eric Schultz. “That was a very big disappointment for our offense. We pride ourselves, especially the offensive line, on scoring points and getting touchdowns. I can't really say what it was last year, something wasn't right with us. I think from the top down we just didn't perform to our best and this year we want to come out and show what we really can do."

The last time BYU played in Logan — back in 2010 — the Aggie defense swarmed Jake Heaps and Co. Hours after the USU 31-16 victory that season, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall fired his defensive coordinator, Jaime Hill.

If USU wins, Keeton will be the difference.

If the Cougars win, it will be because Hill rips off some key big runs and somehow finds throwing accuracy in the red zone, and BYU wins the turnover battle.

The chances of BYU having all three of those things working for them on the road inside an emotional Romney Stadium are slim.

The biggest sign the Cougars might leave with a win is if they face short yardage on third downs.

USU’s key to success is if it can consistently run the football.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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