It's like a second season opener today for Utah State as the 1-2 Aggies tiptoe into Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., not so much expecting to upset 3-1 Oregon, which beat up BYU last week, but hoping they've accomplished a complete personality change in the three weeks since they played last.
The Aggies had almost as much idle time between their third and fourth games of the season as they had for preseason training camp, going from Sept. 15 to 2 p.m. MDT in Oregon today without a game.They seized the moment to revamp their offense, from rollout to dropback and from Kirk Johnson at quarterback to Ron Lopez, and to do some soul-searching about the sloppy way a veteran team has conducted itself on the field at times.
The talent level is still the best Coach Chuck Shelton says he's had in five years at Utah State, "but it's the poorest-executing team I've had," he says.
"We have let too many things slip as coaches. It's not lack of work effort from the kids. A veteran coach shouldn't say things like that, but, yeah, it snuck up on me," Shelton says, sitting in his office hoping a three-week emphasis on stepped-up intensity will show up on the field in Oregon.
"I still think we're a good team," Shelton says.
Perhaps the switch to the assured, flamboyant Lopez - a self-proclaimed prankster - will help produce the desired mental changes. "I don't worry about nothin'," Lopez says. "If I have a bad play, I shake it off. I'm real confident this week."
"He does project confidence," says right guard Mike Vivoli, who admitted to chuckling a few times in practice as Lopez was chewed out for throwing to the wrong receiver. Lopez's answer to the coaches, said Vivoli, was that the man he threw to was open. "He ad libs a lot of things is the impression I'm getting," says Vivoli. "It's definitely fun playing with him."
"He's a character," agrees left guard Greg O'Banion, who hopes the layoff helped his aching shoulder. He's hardly played because of stingers, a separation and bursitis-like inflammation. "He's a good leader," O'Banion says, quickly adding, "Kirk is, too."
Shelton says the Aggies will open their "second season" with an offensive package designed to utilize tight end Ryan Duve more, throw more passes to runners like Roger Grant and Floyd Foreman coming out of the backfield, use more two-back plays to take advantage of Grant (395 yards rushing in three games) and hopefully complete a higher percentage of passes. Shelton would like to complete 65 percent; so far, the Aggie percentage is 45.
Lopez, a junior-college transfer for whom the new offense was tailored, says he has the offensive line to make the dropback package work, and he expects to "nickel and dime" Oregon with short passes and occasionally stretch the defense with the bomb. He's enthusiastic about having thrown a 71-yard pass in practice earlier this week.
He started against Long Beach Sept. 8 but got hurt in the first period and didn't start at Missouri the next week. "This is my opportunity," Lopez declares. He worries not that he's a rookie and Oregon dismantled Heisman Trophy candidate Ty Detmer, the BYU veteran, last week, intercepting him five times. "Theirs is a totally different offense," Lopez says, adding Utah State has automatic "hot receivers" for certain keys, meaning he doesn't have to search for a place to throw, like Detmer.
He respects Oregon's toughness, its blitzes and pass rush, and admits, "Oregon's a mistake-free team that capitalizes on mistakes."
But he wants to "match points with them."
The offensive linemen say there's not much difference in their jobs with the new scheme. "It's one we're well-suited for," says Vivoli.
"If we had to choose," says O'Banion, "dropback is easier for us. We know where he (quarterback) is. And with Roger, we can do what we want."