Utah State finished the season with a game that they forfeited, which is a fitting way to end a strange season for the Aggies where quite a few players entered the transfer portal and Gary Andersen and Utah State parted ways. Jason Shelley was also removed from the team and it wasn’t for disciplinary reasons, interim coach Frank Maile has not said anything else on that matter. So what were the Aggies expected to do during this strange season?
The best case scenario for the Aggies was that they would have had a close game against Boise State and had a big victory over San Diego State the next week. This scenario also included wins over Nevada, Fresno State, Air Force, Colorado State, and New Mexico and one loss to Wyoming to put them at two losses on the season. In this scenario, Utah State would have finished 6-2 and played for the Mountain West title likely against Boise State.
Utah State was expected to find a replacement at quarterback for the lost production of Jordan Love and Utah State brought 10 running backs into the season which was a reason for optimism due to the depth at this position.
Utah State brought back a lot of experience at receiver with Deven Thompkins, Jordan Nathan, Savon Scarver, and Taylor Compton. The offensive line was expected to be one of the best in the Mountain West which would have helped a Utah State passing attack that struggled last season and get the run game going.
In terms of running backs, Utah State brought in Utah transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole and also had Jaylen Warren. Replacing Gerald Bright was going to be a challenge, but the number of players a running back and the experience of Jaylen Warren playing behind Gerald Bright was expected to make a differnece.
Defensively, Utah State only returned five starters. Two players returned at safety, Troy Lefeged and Shaq Bond were preseason favorites as the best safety duo in the Mountain West. Kevin Meitzheimer was key for the linebacker group after a productive 2019 season.
Utah State only had one returning starter on the defensive line, sophomore defensive lineman Hale Motu’apuaka, so this was a cause for concern. The Aggies also returned linebacker Eric Munoz, who was expected to be an important factor in stopping the run game along with Hale Motu’apuaka.
In 2019, Utah State ranked 103rd in the FBS in total defense. The Aggies allowed 5727 yards and the Aggies also ranked 6th in the Mountain West in scoring defense, giving up 30.7 points per game. In order to have a better season, Utah State was going to have to improve on those numbers defensively with a rebuilding offense.
What Really Happened?
Utah State didn’t perform up to preseason expectations... at all... This was a team that was expected to be a contender for the Mountain West title and they finished the season with one win. Jason Shelley was going to be the replacement for Jordan Love but he only had one game where he passed for over 100 yards and was dismissed from the team.
Utah State’s receivers weren’t able to step up, they struggled to make plays throughout the season, which didn’t help a struggling quarterback situation. Jaylen Warren was a bright spot for the Aggies as he was able to run well at times but Utah State didn’t always stick with him, they jumped around a little at the beginning of the season. Deven Thompkins and Savon Scarver both entered the transfer portal along with the productive Jaylen Warren.
Defensively, Utah State consistently gave up big plays both on the ground and through the air. In addition to the struggle of giving up big plays, Troy Lefeged entered the transfer portal which was a big blow to the Utah State secondary. The Aggies rank 122 in the NCAA (through December 12th) in total defense. Through six games, Utah State gave up 2912 total yards, 1564 through the air (ranks #102 in the nation) and has allowed 18 passing touchdowns and 6.78 yards per an attempt. The Aggies have also given up 1348 rushing yards on 252 attempts and have allowed 5.23 yards per an attempt. The Aggies have allowed 14 rushing touchdowns and 224.7 yards per game.
In addition to the yards given up, Utah State’s defense also struggled on preventing third down conversions, allowing a 46.3% conversion rate on third down, which ranks #105 in the nation. Utah State has forced four turnovers and has given up 10 turnovers, five fumbles and five interceptions, which is tied for 115th in the nation.
Utah State converted 35 third downs on 92 attempts (38%), which ranks as 81st in the nation. Through six games Utah State was 75% in the red zone which is #107 in the nation but only entered the red zone eight times throughout the season and scored on six of those trips, getting two rushing touchdowns, two passing, and two field goals. Utah State committed 32 penalties through the six games they played, tied for 35th in the nation.
Overall, these numbers don’t look great, especially on the defensive side. Utah State had a hard time keeping their defense off the field. They were unable to stop teams from converting third downs and only converted 38% of third downs on offense, which is a big reason as to why Utah State was unable to find consistency as a team for most of the season. The most complete game the Aggies had was against New Mexico, where Utah State was not only able to stop New Mexico on third down but they were also able to find enough consistency to get into the red zone and find creative ways of scoring, such as getting the tight ends involved.
While it took a while, Utah State was able to find more consistency at quarterback with Andrew Peasley. He was able to make plays both with his arm and his feet, passing for 391 yards and four touchdowns and three interceptions and rushing for 195 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t have a great finish against Air Force but showed a lot of potential in the New Mexico win and he’ll no doubt get better and build off that potential during the offseason, so Utah State was able to find a longer term quarterback.
As for running back, Utah State will need to find more production as well as with the wide receiver group. Jaylen Warren is gone (entered the transfer portal) and it is unknown for the receivers as there was senior production that could come back due to the extra year of eligibility for those who want to take advantage of that.
Offensive Player of the Year
Well this is an interesting choice. Had Jaylen Warren not entered the transfer portal, he would have no doubt been the most productive player on Utah State’s offense this year. Andrew Peasley didn’t start for long but he has a solid case to be the starting quarterback next season.
On the season, Peasley 37/69 on passing attempts (53.6% completion rate) and passed for 341 yards and four touchdowns in addition to three interceptions, which was good for a passing efficiency 111.7. He also rushed 22 times for 195 yards and a touchdown, averaging 8.9 yards per carry.
Considering that Andrew Peasley only started two games, these aren’t necessarily bad numbers. After the loss to Utah State, New Mexico picked up two wins over Wyoming and New Mexico, ending the year on a higher note than the season had began. Peasley was able to make quite a few plays against the Lobos both through the air and with his feet and with Peasley at the helm, Utah State finally looked like a more complete offense.
The Utah State offense faltered in the Air Force game but will be able to take the encouraging improvement from the New Mexico game and build off of that. Andrew Peasley will need to continue to develop under Blake Anderson and he will need to be able to find more consistent play makers around him.
Defensive Player of the Year
Nick Heninger had a good season. He had 42 total tackles (15 solo, 27 assist) and also had seven tackles for loss, three sacks, and three forced fumbles. Like the offense, the defense struggled with consistency and gave up big plays more times than not.
Heninger has the opportunity to come back next season, but should he chose not to, he will finish his career at Utah State with 74 tackles (35 solo, 39 assist), 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, two fumble recoveries, and four forced fumbles.
He started his career at the University of Utah and played there for the 2017 and 2018 season and started seven games in 2017 and 4 in 2018. In 2017, he had 11 tackles and two fumble recoveries and in 2018 had two tackles and a fumble recovery.
Throughout the 2017-2019 seasons he played at defensive end and started all games he played in at Utah State. During his senior year in 2020, he switched positions from defensive end to linebacker. This season, he was also announced as a finalist for the 2020 Burlsworth Trophy, which is given to the most outstanding football player in America who began his career as a walk-on and has shown outstanding performance on the field.
If he does return for the 2021 season, he will have a big impact on a Utah State defense that will have some work to do in rebuilding its secondary.
What does next season look like at this point?
Well, Gary Andersen is gone. Whatever plans he had for next season may not matter anymore now that Blake Anderson has come in. Blake Anderson had been with Arkansas State for six years before he made the jump to Utah State. He did fairly well and a new leadership approach may be just what Utah State needed.
Matt Wells was able to get Utah State to a competitive level in the Mountain West and led them to one of their best seasons in school history in 2018. That isn’t to say that Blake Anderson will have the same amount of success as Matt Wells did but he does have a decent record behind him.
This was much more of a building year for Utah State and while they did only get one win, they were able to get some games in and experience for guys who will be playing that hadn’t played yet.
Blake Anderson will certainly have talent at his disposal for his first season at Utah State and it will be interesting to see how Blake Anderson does because recent hires for the Mountain West have struggled a little such as Steve Addazio and Todd Graham at Hawaii. These coaches did have success at points but the main point is that it may take Blake Anderson longer than a year to get Utah State back on track.
Things should look better for the Aggies next season and maybe they will exceed expectations next season, but even if they don’t meet expectations in Anderson’s first year, Anderson should be able to get enough development in to build this team and get them back to being a true competitor in the Mountain West within a couple seasons.