ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a bowl game matchup featuring two of the nation’s top offenses and a pair of opportunistic defenses, Utah State interim head coach Frank Maile is confident the Aggies are up to the task facing North Texas in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl with a short-handed coaching staff.
“It's been a little tricky, but at the end of the day, the guys that are still in the building knew that it was all hands on deck,” Maile said Monday during the team’s press conference. “Without coaches here, (the players) understand already what's expected of them and how to do things. I don't think we're going to skip a beat, not at all.”
Since Utah State last played — on Nov. 24, a 33-24 loss to Boise State that snapped a 10-game win streak — the Aggies have dealt with a shakeup of the coaching staff. Head coach Matt Wells accepted the open head coaching position at Big 12 program Texas Tech and is taking his coordinators, David Yost on offense and Keith Patterson on defense, with him. That left Maile, USU’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, in charge for the postseason.
On Sunday, former Aggie head coach Gary Andersen was announced as Wells’ replacement. Neither Wells nor Andersen will be on the sideline in Albuquerque, though Yost will be there calling the offensive plays.
Even with the coaching carousel, it’s business as usual in preparation for Saturday’s bowl game at Dreamstyle Stadium (noon MT, ESPN) as the Aggies (10-2, 7-1 Mountain West) and Mean Green (9-3, 5-3 Conference USA) both aim to punctuate an already special season with one final win.
“I have no doubt in our leadership and our seniors that we're going to take us and put us in the best position to win,” Utah State senior linebacker/safety Jontrell Rocquemore said.
What lies ahead for Utah State, ranked No. 23 in the Coaches Poll, is a North Texas squad that, like the Aggies, can put up points. The Mean Green are averaging 36.4 points per game, which is on pace to become the best scoring season in program history.
Utah State, meanwhile, is averaging 47.2 points per game, third-best nationally.
“They have a lot of weapons and they’re explosive. … They put a lot of points up on the board,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said of the Aggies during his Monday press conference. “They’re sound in all three phases. They’re the most complete team we’ve faced.”
Both teams are led by strong quarterback play. Mason Fine has earned back-to-back Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year honors for North Texas and is eighth nationally with 3,734 passing to go with 27 touchdowns and a 64.5 completion percentage.
“He keeps plays alive, but when he has to, he's very dangerous on his feet. We have to do a great job defensively of containing him in the pocket and getting to him,” Maile said of Fine.
The Aggies’ Jordan Love has shown tremendous development in his sophomore season, completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,208 yards and 28 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for 60 yards and six more scores while earning All-Mountain West second-team honors.
The Mean Green have six players with 24 receptions or more, led by 1,017 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns from Rico Bussey Jr.
"We have to stop the big plays. Their offense evolves around creating big plays, taking shots down the field, explosive runs and things like that,” Rocquemore said.
The Aggies use the run to set up the pass behind Darwin Thompson and Gerald Bright. Thompson has rushed for 951 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Bright has added 785 yards and eight scores on the ground.
Both teams, too, are opportunistic on defense. Fine and Love have thrown just five interceptions each this season, though they’ll face two of the nation’s best defenses in takeaways. The Aggies are tied for first nationally with 18 interceptions, including six which has been returned for touchdowns, while the Mean Green have intercepted 17 passes this season, good for a tie for fifth in the country.
“Defensively, they do a great job within their scheme. They’ve got very good talent on the back end. They play with great technique. Their linebackers are really good players, probably some guys that are draftable. They’re physical up front,” Littrell said of the Aggies.
North Texas is seeking to reach 10 wins for just the third time in program history, and the first time since 1977, while playing in a third straight bowl game.7 comments on this story
A win would give Utah State 11 victories for the first time since 2012, Andersen’s final season in his first stint as the Aggies’ head coach. USU is also making its seventh bowl appearance in the past eight years, including a 21-6 win over UTEP in the 2014 New Mexico Bowl.
"For us, it will be just doing our job. It's never been about who we're playing. It's never been what are they going to do that's going to challenge us. It's about what can we do correctly to destroy them? That's the goal. Do everything we can in our power, our job, every single play correctly, to win the game,” Utah State senior center Quin Ficklin said.