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2021 Utah State Aggies Season Preview

The first year under Blake Anderson begins as Aggies look to improve

NCAA Football: Utah State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Fall is just around the corner and there is going to be a new face in Logan leading the Aggies this year. Gary Andersen departed mid-way through the pandemic shortened 2020 season with a record of 7-9 (6-5) during the unsuccessful second tenure with the Aggies. Frank Maile took over and went 1-2, getting the Aggies their first and only win against New Mexico. Maile is now gone after taking the defensive line coaching position at Boise State but a new face has arrived.

Blake Anderson comes in from Arkansas State, where he coached from 2014-2020 with a 51-37 (38-18) record. Anderson led the Red Wolves to six bowl games in seven seasons and two bowl wins. Anderson has previously served as the offensive coordinator/quarterback coach at North Carolina (2012-2013) and Southern Miss (2010-2011), the running game coordinator/quarterback coach at Southern Miss (2008-2009), the offensive coordinator/quarterback coach at Louisiana Lafayette (2007), and the co offensive coordinator/receivers coach at Middle Tennessee (2002-2004) as well as serving in other positions. Anderson inherits an Aggies team that hasn’t had real success since the departure of Matt Wells in 2018 and will be looking to move the Aggies forward after a very forgettable season.

Offense

Reasons for optimism: Utah State has struggled the past two season on offense, but maybe new coaches that bring energy and new insight could make a difference. This past season, the Aggies ranked 123rd in total offense, averaging 275.8 yards per game, while ranking 120th in passing offense (135.8 yards per game) and 88th in rushing offense (140 yards per game). In 2019, Utah State averaged 238.6 passing yards per game and 202.4 rushing yards. The drop in numbers is a little concerning but it is also important to remember that Utah State lost Jordan Love, backup quarterback Henry Colombi, and starting running back Gerold Bright. That was a significant amount of production that was lost in addition to the guy who probably would have taken over for Love, which meant third string quarterback Andrew Peasley was thrown into the mix. Peasley was young with not much experience last season but should be able to grow from his experiences and do better this season. Blake Anderson also brings over Logan Bonner, who had a big impact for Arkansas State the past two seasons, so there is experience at quarterback.

The running back room is going to be loaded this season with John Gentry, Devonta’e Henry Cole, Eleyon Noa, and Pailate Makakonareturning and Calvin Tyler Jr. coming over as a transfer from Oregon State. This is not only important for building depth at a crucial position but also finding consistent play makers, something that Utah State has struggled with the past two seasons.

Reasons for concern: It can be very hard to tell how successful a new coach can be before the season begins. There may be a slight concern in that there is going to be a learning process for the team, especially for the offense, and the Aggies face Air Force and Boise State in early season games. Can the Aggies have enough figured out by that point? That remains to be seen. There could also be concern in which quarterback is going to step up. What if both Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley are struggling?

Finding a play maker is also a cause for concern. Over the past two seasons, the Aggies have been unable to get a player to go over 1000 yards receiving or 1000 yards rushing. Potential play makers in the receivers department could be Justin McGriff (who led the team in 2020 with 185 yards and two touchdowns), Dereck Wright, Deven Thompkins, Jordan Nathan, Carson Terrell (TE), and Savon Scarver. Thompkins, Nathan, Terrell, Wright and Scarver are all veterans that need to step up this season and get the Aggies offense moving.

The offensive line needs to be able to protect the stable of running backs and whoever plays at quarterback. Last season, the Aggies were expected to have one of the best offensive lines in the conference but they were unable to live up to expectations. There needs to be a greater emphasis on consistency on the line and a new offensive line coach in Micah James, who played an important part in leading UCF to the 2018 Fiesta Bowl, could bring the energy and direction that is needed.

Key Stat: Utah State ranked 120th in passing offense last season, averaging 135.8 yards per game and scoring six touchdowns through the air. With more experience at quarterback this year, those numbers need to improve.

Wildcard: Taylor Compton (WR) is a senior and though he doesn’t have any touchdown catches in his career, he has still contributed to the offense. In 2018, he had 58 yards off eight receptions, in 2019 he had 121 yards off 14 receptions, and in 2020 he had 26 yards on four receptions. Will him not playing this year leave a void in the offense for a reliable receiver or not?

Defense

Reasons for Optimism: The defense gave up big plays last season but they will look to improve this season with the return of safety Shaq Bond, cornerback Xavion Steele, cornerback Zahodri Jackson, defensive end Nick Heninger, lineacker AJ Vongphachanh (who led the team with 50 tackles), linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer (who forced three fumbles), and outside linebacker Cash Gillam among other contributors. Last season, Utah State ranked 120th in total defense, allowing a very concerning 485.3 yards per game. The Aggies were 101st in scoring defense, allowing 35.17 points per game, 102nd in third down defense with a conversion rate of 46.3% of third downs converted, 103rd in passing defense with 260.7 yards per game allowed, and 114th in rushing yards allowed with 224.7 yards allowed per game.

One of the reasons for optimism is that the Aggies bring back veteran players that have the experience to bring those very high numbers down. The Aggies also bring in notable transfer talent that should have immediate impact in linebacker Justin Rice (Arkansas State), Aurion Peoples (College of the Canyons), Byron Vaughns (Texas), and Patrick Joyner Jr. Things should be more so back to normal this season in terms of preparation and fall camp so that is another reason for optimism because it is going to give Utah State a chance to settle in and find their rhythm under new defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda, who comes to Utah State after spending five seasons with Miami as the safeties coach.

Reasons for concern: Those defensive rankings that were previously mentioned are really bad. A team certainly doesn’t want to be near the bottom of the rankings in total defense, scoring defense, third down defense, passing defense, and rushing defense. It makes it very hard to give the offense opportunities to score and stay in the game.

Here’s another statistic: Utah State was tied for 118th in turnovers forced, gaining four turnovers total last season. Sure preparation could have been a significant factor in that very low number but the fact is that Utah State had players such as Shaq Bond, Cash Gillam, AJ Vongphachanh, Kevin Meitzenheimer and others experienced players yet they could still only force four turnovers. Two of those turnovers were fumbles forced by Nick Heninger and the other two turnovers were interceptions by Shaq Bond and sophomore safety Luke Marion.

That is a concerning because of the lack of production and the amount of big plays that were given up last season. This could be a job that takes Banda more than one year to turn around but just as it was stated with the offense, it remains to be seen how consistent this defense can be.

Key Stat: All of them really but specifically the four turnovers forced last season. The offense needs to have more opportunities to put away games.

Wildcard: Defensive lineman Aurion Peoples has a chance to make an immediate impact. He has good size at 6-4 300 lbs which would be a great asset in stopping the running game. Peoples had 18 tackles (three for loss) in 2019 for College of Canyons. Utah State needs to get more pressure upfront and while Peoples doesn’t necessarily have a great amount of experience, he could still make an important difference.

2021 Utah State Schedule

Sept. 4 - at Washington State

Sept. 10 - North Dakota

Sept. 18 - at Air Force*

Sept. 25 - Boise State*

Oct. 1 - BYU

Oct. 9 - Bye

Oct. 16 - at UNLV*

Oct. 22 - Colorado State*

Oct. 30 - Hawaii*

Nov. 6 - at New Mexico State

Nov. 13 - at San Jose State*

Nov. 20 - Wyoming*

Nov. 26 - at New Mexico*

-Home games in bold

-Conference games indicated by *

Thoughts: Things aren’t going to be easy to start the season for Utah State as they travel to Pullman. The Aggies get a small break against North Dakota before their two toughest challenges of the year: at Air Force and vs Boise State. Back to back. The only thing that would make this worse for the Aggies is if they were playing Washington State, Air Force, and Boise State in a span of three weeks. The two game run against the Falcons and Broncos is concluded by a third game against BYU, who will be no easy challenge either.

After a bye week there is what should be a small break against UNLV before games against Colorado State and Hawaii, where the Aggies will need to be very careful, especially against Hawaii. There is what should be another small break against New Mexico State before another tricky two game stretch against San Jose State and Wyoming, who are both expected to be good this year. The year wraps up against New Mexico on the road.

The start to this year is going to be brutal, specifically with facing Air Force and Boise State in back to back games in September. Going 1-1 in those two games would be very challenging but would also put Utah State in good position. Going 0-2 against the Falcons and Broncos would all but eliminate the Aggies from conference title contention before the season really even gets going. Not to mention games against Colorado State, Wyoming, Hawaii, and San Jose State on the schedule. Whatever happens at the end of September is going to set the pace and for a team that has a new head coach and is breaking in a new offense, that seems like it would be a little much to ask to beat Air Force and Boise State.

Best Case Scenario: Utah State isn’t going to beat Air Force and Boise State, but they would still be in good position if they split the games. That way they would go into October at 2-2 with at least a little momentum. Beating BYU probably isn’t very likely as the Cougars tend to have a good defense. After the bye week, Utah State goes on a four game winning streak against UNLV, Colorado State, Hawaii, and New Mexico State before splitting games against San Jose State and Wyoming. Utah State takes down New Mexico in the season finale to finish the regular season at 8-4 and making a bowl game for the first time since 2019.

Worst Case Scenario: The Aggies drop both games at the end of September, starting the year at 1-3 and moving to 1-4 going into the bye week after a loss to BYU. The Aggies beat UNLV but fall to Colorado State and Hawaii before picking up their third win of the season against New Mexico State. Utah State loses to San Jose State and Wyoming before getting their fourth win against New Mexico to end the year 4-8.

What’s probably going to happen: Utah State is going to have a tough time winning at Air Force and then turning around facing Boise State and that’s the reason I think they drop both games to start the year 1-3 and the Aggies fall to 1-4 after a loss to BYU. After the bye week there is potential to pick up a win against UNLV before splitting between Colorado State and Hawaii. The Aggies lose to San Jose State but find a way to beat Wyoming and New Mexico to end the year 5-7.

In reality, nobody really knows how Blake Anderson and his team will perform this season but one thing is for sure: College football is back and ready for a more normal year!