Perhaps Adam Kennedy left too soon.
In 2011, the former Utah State quarterback relieved an injured Chuckie Keeton and led the Aggies to a bowl game. Keeton took back the starting job last season — but Friday night, he left USU’s game against BYU in the first quarter, remaining on crutches the rest of the way.
With backup Craig Harrison, the Aggies were unable to generate firepower, losing to the Cougars 31-14. BYU beat USU for the third straight season and 12th time in the past 14 contests. The Aggies’ nine-game home winning streak also came to an end. USU suffered its worst loss since a 50-14 decision to Boise State on Dec. 4, 2010.
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
Taysom Hill (17-31, 278 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) had his best complete game of the season. He had a great supporting cast with Jamaal Williams (14 carries, 79 yards), who missed the Middle Tennessee win last week with a concussion. Then Hill warmed up with tosses to Mitch Mathews (five receptions, 112 yards) as the game wore on. The sophomore signal-caller set a career-high for touchdown passes against the 22nd-best scoring defense in the nation.
Statistically, backup Craig Harrison (8-13, 42 yards) actually did better than Keeton (4-10, 26 yards) by halftime. Overall, Harrison went 18-41 for 184 yards and one touchdown. In three drives with Keeton and the rest of the way under Harrison, USU could not generate a sustained offense.
Kyle Van Noy set the tone for the 23rd-rated scoring defense in the nation, getting the best of Keeton with a 17-yard interception return for a touchdown. He also swiftly batted down a fourth-down slant from Harrison when the Aggies were down 24-7 early in the third quarter and looking for a spark.
Van Noy’s score meant USU gave up a first-quarter touchdown for just the third time in its last 22 games dating back to the 2011 season.
The Aggies didn’t limit Hill like, say, Virginia (Hill was 13-40) or Utah (Hill was 18-48). The defense held up for only so long. Its scoring defense ranked 23rd in the nation entering the game, but a still-suspect passing defense was exposed against a quarterback who ranked last in the nation in completion percentage just two weeks ago.
J.D. Falslev bounced back from a two-fumble night against Middle Tennessee to cleanly field punts Friday night. Justin Sorensen added a 27-yard field goal.
Nick Diaz’s 47-yard field goal attempt early was blocked at a time, early in the second quarter, when USU trailed by 10 and needed life. It was the Aggies’ bona fide chance of scoring with Harrison under center. The return game never placed the offense in extraordinary field position.
Bronco Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell surprisingly had it easy Friday night, with Keeton down. The Aggie offense never found rhythm.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae placed Hill in accommodating situations, relying on Williams to establish short-yardage downs in the first half before Hill really got it going with Mathews after halftime.
Head coach Matt Wells and offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven were handcuffed without their versatile, star signal-caller. It was resigned to relying on the legs of Joey DeMartino, which wearied in the second half. Had they not, Harrison wasn’t reliable.
With Keeton’s absence, the Cougars had it easier than they might have expected. Still, Hill’s play was encouraging, as it came against an excellent USU defense led by perhaps the best linebacker corps in the Mountain West Conference.
The Aggies are in deep-searching mode without their star who had Heisman whisperings about him. They didn’t crumble without Keeton but didn’t seriously compete, either. Whether or not Craig Harrison is the answer, USU’s “climb” as marketed by the school just got a lot steeper.