Last night, USU had a severe case of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly's. USU fans were nearly heartbroken in the first game of the season. In order to improve, the dismal performance needs to be analyzed; that's obviously what Matt Wells and Co. are doing today, so we'll do the same. Let's start with the Ugly and get it out of the way.
The Ugly: USU's offense was the ugliest thing you've seen on a football field since the last little league game you attended (and if you've never been to a little league game, you've probably never seen something that bad). Okay, obviously I'm exaggerating, but even so... Chuckie Keeton was certainly not the Chuckie that we've grown to love over the past few years. He went 16-33 for 110 yards and one interception. He also ran six times for seven yards. He was merely a symptom of the deeper issues, though. The two bigger problems were the receivers and the offensive line.
The receivers are in trouble, there's just no negotiating that into a better situation than it is. They lost star JoJo Natson over the summer to stupidity; they lost Hunter Sharp for the first two games for the same reason; Brandon Swindall is out, possibly for the season; and Zach Van Leeuwen went down early in the game and may also be out for the season. Hunter Sharp doesn't come back till week three, which means that the best receivers USU has going into hostile territory in Salt Lake next week are: Devonte Robinson, Braelon Roberts, and Andrew Rodriguez. Of the three, only Robinson is a proven commodity. Keeton really doesn't have any dominant targets to throw to.
Additionally, the offensive line play was absolutely horrible. They provided very little pass protection, which left Chuckie scrambling far more often than anyone watching was comfortable with. Fortunately for USU, he only took one sack, but he was constantly pressured and rarely had enough time to really set his feet and throw. On the flip side, they also really didn't play that well in run blocking. The Aggies only ran for 140 yards on the night, bringing the offense's total production to 250 yards and zero touchdowns.
And finally, the team was about as far from disciplined as it is possible to be. Last season, the team averaged 7.2~ penalties per game for 66~ penalty yards per game. Last night, the team had 11 penalties for 123 penalty yards. Those penalties often came at crucial moments that killed momentum and drives, or allowed SUU into scoring opportunities.
The Bad: USU's special teams had an awful botched snap that led to a blocked punt, which SUU recovered basically already in the red zone. That led to SUU scoring the first (and only) offensive touchdown of the game a few moments into the contest (yes, you read that correctly... neither team scored a touchdown on offense the rest of the night). And aside from the one seriously bad kick after the bad snap, freshman punter Aaron Dalton punted 13 times for an average of 35~ per kick. If the Aggies want to win the field position battle, they will need more than 35 yards from their punts. The defense also missed some key tackles, one of which led to SUU's touchdown.
The Good: Surprisingly, there was some good to be found in this game. For one, despite mostly terrible play from the offensive line, there was some solid running from the Aggie running backs. LaJuan Hunt picked up 80 yards on the ground (granted, he had 23 attempts, so his yards per attempt were not that great), and emerged as the Aggies' go-to back. And JuCo transfer Devante Mays amassed 51 yards on only four attempts, showing some very impressive burst speed for such a big back- he's 5'11" and 220 lbs.
The defense was also as dominant as expected. Had the special teams not given up that punt, it is likely that SUU may never have scored more than a field goal. The linebacker group was as scary as promised; Nick Vigil led the effort with thirteen tackles, five of which were solos. Although Kyler Fackrell only had five tackles, his dominating presence was often what allowed Vigil to make the plays; they were so scared of and pressured by Fackrell that they were pushed straight into Nick. There was seldom a play on defense where at least one of the two names was not being mentioned. LT Filiaga and Michael Okonkwo both contributed significantly.
The DBs also performed well, all things considered. They had a couple penalties for pass interference, but for the most part were able to adequately shut down the SUU receivers, and often made solid plays to keep lateral pass plays from developing- there were several screen and bubble passes that were held to loss-of-yardage plays due to the DBs' aggressive play. Given the fact that most people not me were questioning their ability to perform week 1 after replacing proven playmakers, I'm happy to say that they did quite well.
Aside from the bad snap and a couple penalties, special teams play was actually one of the few highlights of the game for the Aggies. One solid point that didn't have any problems during the evening was the Aggies' new place kicker Brock Warren, who teamed up with DJ Nelson as his holder to be perfect on the night with one field goal and one PAT. They kick blocking unit also made up for the bad punt in small part by blocking the SUU PAT attempt and returning it for a huge two point conversion. Had SUU converted that PAT, the game may have gone into overtime.
On punt returns, DB Jalen Davis had two solid returns, averaging 17.5 yards per return. The biggest surprise, though, was junior WR Andrew Rodriguez, who returned eight punts, and averaged 17 yards per return himself. For the Aggies to average over 17 yards per punt return is huge in and of itself, especially having returned 10 punts on the night, but it was also the reason why the Aggies were able to pull off the comeback and avoid the upset. After having trailed the entire game, the Aggies were getting the ball back with just under five minutes to go in the game. This was most likely going to be their last possession of the game. Just when hopes were starting to die, the new A-Rod fielded the punt at the Aggie 22 yard line, and exploded. With one move inside and another to cut to the outside, he got some solid blocking and was off to the races, taking it 88 yards for the touchdown. The Aggies converted the PAT, and held on for the win.
After it was all said and done, the Aggies snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, limped off the field bruised, broken, and with that all-important W on the game result line of the stat sheets. It wasn't pretty, and if it's indicative of what the rest of the season will hold, it's honestly pretty disheartening. For me, I'm still holding out hope. Call it first game jitters, call it stupid coaching, call it youth and inexperience and injuries and whatever the heck else you want, I don't believe it will last. Sure, the receiving corps will still be depleted next week. Sure, the offense line won't gain , muscles, and backbones overnight. But I do believe they will look at this game, shake it off, and move on. And given the nightmares I had last night, I think I need to do the same.