Editor's Note: This is part three in a three-part series on the in-state games this year.
Both the Aggies and the Cougars had something in common last year: they both had incredibly stout defenses that could stand toe to toe with some of college football’s best teams, even if it meant not necessarily winning. The Ags suffered a close defeat to Wisconsin 16-14, while the Cougars dropped a heartbreaker to Boise State 7-6. As such, there was plenty of hype leading up to last year’s contest in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The result was not nearly as exciting as many had hoped.
Taysom Hill filled in admirably for an injured Riley Nelson. He connected with J.D. Falslev on a short pass at the end of the half for the game's lone touchdown, but BYU couldn’t convert the PAT.
Still, a marvelous defensive effort ensured that touchdown would ultimately be enough. The Aggies scored a field goal earlier and had another chance in the fourth quarter to tie the game with another field goal, but Josh Thompson’s kick sailed off to the side. Nobody would score again in this game, and the Cougars held on to win 6-3.
Both teams had a difficult time finding a good offensive rhythm, and, while both gained yards, both had trouble scoring. This was a true defensive slugfest reminiscent of the 2003 Utah-BYU rivalry game, where the Utes edged the Cougars 3-0.
Though the Cougars won, Hill sustained a season-ending leg injury on the final play of the game. Utah State never lost again and finished with the best season in school history while BYU faced some additional setbacks against Oregon State and Notre Dame, a result many considered a truly wasted opportunity.
This year's kickoff to the USU-BYU game is only a few days away, so let's break down what we will see on the field and what we can expect.
Sam McConkie is a technical and professional writing graduate from Utah State University. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
BYU had arguably its best defense ever last season, ranking No. 3 nationally in total defense. But an inconsistent offense severely plagued the team along the way. The Cougars finished 8-5 last season, just the third time in the Bronco Mendenhall era they have finished below the 10-win mark.
Before the start of spring ball, Mendenhall explained where he sees his program and what he strives to accomplish: "I've self-imposed — no one has imposed it on me — that the minimum standard is a top 25 ranking. That's what I believe is supposed to happen at BYU. I think in five of the last seven years, we've done that. There's not many other teams that have. That's good. Better would be the top 10. Best is national champion.”
While plenty of starters from last season have returned, the Cougars must address some big question marks on offense and defense.
Hill returns to the starting role as quarterback after his injury last October. Though Hill hasn’t started many games in his career thus far, he has enough experience and ability to lead the offense, but he needs to air out the ball more. Otherwise, backup Ammon Olsen could see playing time in this game.
Hill will run first and throw second under Robert Anae’s new up-tempo offense. Jamaal Williams may or may not see the field after the stinger he sustained in the Utah game, so Michael Alisa and Paul Lasike will likely pick up the slack in the run game.
Cody Hoffman returns for his senior season as BYU’s primary receiving threat. Hoffman racked up more than 1,000 receiving yards last season and shouldn’t have a problem matching last year’s total as long as he can get open, though his play this season has thus far been limited because of a tweaked hamstring muscle and a one-game suspension. Ross Apo and JD Falslev are also expected to make major contributions as receivers.
On defense, linebacker Kyle Van Noy returns, and Van Noy can accurately say he scored more points in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State than the entire Cougar offense did. He’s been able to achieve on a very high level again this year with multiple pass breakups and quarterback hurries, though matching last year's total number of tackles and sacks could be difficult.
Though the cornerback position started out strong, the loss of Trent Trammel and Jordan Johnson to season-ending injuries has thinned out the secondary considerably.
BYU lost a great deal of production on its defense with the graduation of Brandon Ogletree, Romney Fuga and Ziggy Ansah, who is now playing for the Detroit Lions. Eathyn Manumaleuna, JUCO transfers Marques Johnson and Kalolo Utu and freshman Tuni Kanuch will round out the defense this year, along with Bronson Kaufusi, replacing Ansah.
Though not quite as strong a unit as last season, especially after losing linebacker Spencer Hadley for a five-game suspension period, this Cougar defense can still suffocate its fair share of opponents. Just ask Middle Tennessee.
On the offensive side of the ball, Riley Nelson has graduated. A controversial quarterback, he often stayed on the field and managed to sustain some good drives. Though there is no question Hill can keep the Cougars in any game, he must stay healthy. Otherwise, it could be a long night against Utah State’s relentless defense.
As for the offensive line, the unit has essentially started over from last season. Manaaki Vaitai and Michael Yeck are two of the primary starters on the line. Along with them, potential starters include Josh Carter, Edward Fusi, Tim Duran and De'Ondre Wesley. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae has shifted the line around a bit since the Virginia loss, though, so this could change again.
Matt Wells, former offensive coordinator and now Utah State head coach, has sought to keep the momentum from last season going. Some of the original staff is back, such as linebackers coach Kevin Clune and wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight. A few new mix-ins have arrived, which include defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and offensive line coach Mark Weber.
At Mountain West media days, Wells expressed plenty of enthusiasm about how he feels his team can compete.
“Defense wins championships and we feel we’re going to be very good defensively again this season,” Wells said. “The defense leads this team, but I also think we have a lot of potential offensively, and it all starts with Chuckie Keeton. He’s very good, obviously, and I think he’s done the work necessary to be that much better. We’re excited for this season and excited for our opportunities in the Mountain West Conference.”
The Aggies return almost their entire offensive line from last season, which includes Rimington Trophy nominee Tyler Larsen. Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz and Kevin Whimpey round out an experienced, strong line with more than 100 combined starts among them. Right guard Kyle Whimpey sustained a leg injury in the San Jose State game, so Sini Tauauve'a will fill in for him.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns for his junior season. He set multiple records in passing, rushing and touchdowns last season for the Aggies. So far, he is second in the nation in touchdown passes and looks to be on track for another record year. Expect him to do some damage to BYU's secondary as long as his line protects him.
Defensively, linebackers Kyler Fackrell, Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil return from a defense that ranked seventh in scoring defense last season. If they can consistently get a pass rush going on Hill, expect another strong performance against the Cougars like last year.
The Aggies must replace an all-star in Kerwynn Williams. He rushed for more than 1,500 yards and scored more than 20 touchdowns in 2012. Joe Hill has split a large number of carries with senior Joey DeMartino so far, and the results have been fairly good. But it seems unlikely either of them will replace Williams' production from last year.
Defensively, the Aggies must find new guys to fill in for linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu, lineman Al Lapuaho, cornerback Will Davis and safety McKade Brady — not an easy task by any means. Nevin Lawson has stepped up in Davis' place with Tay Glover-Wright playing the other corner position.
At the punter position, Tyler Bennett is being replaced by Jaron Bentrude. He's done an adequate job thus far, but he'll need to punt better against the Cougars than he did against the Trojans to give Utah State's defense an edge.
Last year's game in Provo was a bit of a low-scoring snoozer. This year, BYU's defense, while not as good as last year, should still give Utah State's offense some fits along the way. However, this is a home game for the Aggies. The crowd will be extremely volatile and hostile toward the visiting team, just like the last time BYU went to Logan, and that could play a large role in what happens Friday night.
When it comes right down to it, it will be Utah State's high-powered offense versus the Cougars' stingy defense. Now it's just a matter of who buckles first.