Utah State football without Chuckie Keeton is like a Chicago-style hot dog without the dog: the condiments are great, the flavor is good, but it is terribly, horribly incomplete. The Aggies showed how much they miss Keeton as they took another sucker punch last weekend, losing their second straight sold-out home game to conference foe Boise State. New Mexico, meanwhile, kept the game close against Wyoming, but lost by a touchdown to start their conference season 0-2. The two teams will get together this week in a MWC showdown that carries more of an impact than many people probably realize.
Utah State took a hit to their conference title aspirations when they lost to the Broncos last week, taking the control out of their hands. That being said, the Aggies are still very much in the race. The Broncos hold the tie-break due to their head-to-head victory over USU; however, Boise State has already lost one conference game. If they were to lose to another conference team- Nevada, Wyoming, and San Diego State are all possibilities- and if USU were to win the rest of their games this season, USU would be the Mountain Division's representative in the inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship.
The question is, can the Aggies win out without Chuckie? The answer depends... it depends on whether the defense can regain its form from earlier in the year while continuing to force turnovers. It depends on whether there are other players who will step up and fill the leadership vacuum left by Keeton's absence. And most of all, it depends on whether true freshman quarterback Darrell Garretson can step in and become the quarterback that the Aggies need to run their style of offense.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Darrell needs to be Chuckie; there's not another quarterback in the conference that could do what Chuckie did for USU. But right now, the Aggies need to be confident that they have a quarterback who can make the throws, who can take a hit, and who can deliver when the game is on the line. Two years ago, they had Adam Kennedy; Kennedy stepped in when Keeton went down against Hawaii, and engineered not only a comeback victory on the island after being down 21 points at the half, but also a five game win streak that took USU to its first bowl game in over a decade. The Aggies need a similar performance from Garretson if they want to achieve their goals for this season.
The Aggies have a good test this week in New Mexico to gauge whether Garretson can be the man they need him to be. The 19-year-old will face a defense that allows 36 points per game, 479 yards per game, a pass defense efficiency rating over 150, all of which rank 110th (out of 123 FBS teams) or worse in the country. If Garretson can perform against a weak defense this week, the Aggies may be able to start having hope again for this season. Garretson was underwhelming last week in his college debut, throwing 2 interceptions in 14 passes in a quarter and a half of play. He did complete 9 throws for 116 yards and 1 touchdown, however, and seemed to improve as the game continued.
Part of the issue during last week's game was certainly his lack of D1 experience, even in practice; with Keeton healthy at the beginning of the year and Harrison as his de facto backup, there wasn't much of a reason to get Darrell much practice field time. The lack of QB-receiver chemistry was evident on several plays, highlighted by the interceptions. With as much emphasis as he must be getting this week, however, we should see significant improvement from his this Saturday. Head Coach Matt Wells was the primary developer of Chuckie Keeton as a quarterback, and I expect to see him get more hands on in developing Garretson.
The Aggie defense, which has struggled the past couple weeks since Keeton went down, will look to rebound against one of the most explosive running attacks in the country. The Lobos rarely pass the ball, with just over one play in five as a pass play, and a completion percentage of 45%. The only team with fewer passing yards per game is Army. Army happens to also be the only team with more rushing yards than the Lobos. Facing one of the top ten rushers in the country in Kasey Carrier and a strong backup in Cole Gautsche, the Aggies defense will have a chance to redeem themselves from less than stellar performances against BYU and Boise St. Even with subpar showings for two weeks straight, the USU defense is statistically the best in the MWC, both overall and against the run; whether New Mexico can move the ball against the Aggies' run defense will determine in great part the outcome of this game.
There isn't much recent history between the two teams, who have only played 19 times total; they have only played twice since the turn of the century. The last time they met was in 2003 in Albuquerque, with New Mexico winning the contest 34-7. They also played in 2002, with USU squeaking out a 45-44 win in Logan. The Lobos won the first meeting in 1951, 17-13. New Mexico leads the series 11-8.