Utah State stunned a lot of people in 2021 behind the arm of Logan Bonner and new head coach Blake Anderson, going 11-3 (6-2). The Aggies won a season-defining game on the road against Washington State before dropping a game to Boise State to go 3-1 in September. After losing to BYU at home in a 34-20 game, the Aggies would win five straight before losing at home to Wyoming, 44-17. The regular season would close out with a 35-10 win at New Mexico and the season would close out with a win at San Diego State in the conference championship game (46-13) and a win in the Los Angeles bowl against Oregon State, where Logan Bonner would go down with a knee injury. Bonner would return with experience for the 2022 season but went down with a season-ending foot injury. Throughout the season Utah State lost Bonner, receiver Kyle Van Leeuwen, Philip Paea, and Seni Tuiaki in addition to quarterback Cooper Legas, Levi Williams and linebacker MJ Tafisi. John Ward, Ajani Carter, Michael Anyanwu, and Ike Larsen also missed multiple games due to injury and Utah State would finish the 2022 season at 6-7 with a bowl loss to Memphis.
Not counting the 2020 shortened COVID season, this was the worst season for the Aggies since 2017 (not counting the 3-9 season from 2016), here Utah State would have four losses in conference play. The Aggies do however look to be moving in the right direction after plenty of young talent gained experience in the 2022 season. Just how good can be Aggies be this season? Let’s take a look.
Reasons for optimism: Two players that are going to be important pieces of keeping Utah State’s offense running productively are junior quarterback Cooper Legas and senior receiver Terrell Vaughn. Legas threw for 1449 yards and 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, completing 135 of his 221 passes (61.1%). Vaughn caught 56 passes for 624 yards and reached the endzone five times. Sophomore running back Robert Briggs rushed for 368 yards and a touchdown on 74 attempts during his freshman season and should also make an impact in the 2023 season. Kyle Van Leeuwen is also expected to return this coming up season after suffering an injury in the game against Weber State and as started games before. The Aggies also add Colby Bowman, a former four star recruit out of Saint John Bosco High School that transferred from Stanford.
Behind Robert Briggs, Utah State adds junior college transfer Davon Booth and Briggs is expected to have a more productive season this year. Having the depth of two junior college transfers in Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison behind Robert Briggs should help the Aggies run the ball.
The injuries hit Utah State hard during the 2022 season and the transfer portal was not helpful for the Aggies either. Last season, Utah State returned six offensive starters and scored 22.2 points a game, 10 points less than the 2021 season where Utah State scored 32.6 points per game with 10 returning starters. While Utah State returns just four offensive starters this season there is plenty of room for players that were able to get experience last season to step up.
Reasons for concern: The offensive line stat of one returning starter does not help the Aggies. Utah State loses 1st team MW left tackle Alfred Edwards, who set the Utah State record for career starts, in addition to losing right guard Weylin Lapuaho, right tackle Jacob South, and center Chandler Dolphin. The Aggies do bring in Arizona State transfer Ralph Frias to aid left guard Wade Meacham and center Falepule Alo, who both have starting experience, but with all the production lost on the offensive line (116 starts), this is a major concern for the Aggies.
In terms of the quarterback position, having Cooper Legas and Levi Williams back, two players with experience in Utah State’s position, helps. True freshman Bishop Davenport transferred in the Spring and Logan Bonner finished his career with a foot injury. Utah State also adds freshman McCae Hillstead but if health becomes an issue at the quarterback spot this year for the Aggies that could be a major concern as after Legas and Williams there isn’t much experience in this system or in college football in general.
For the receivers, Utah State loses three of their top five players which is a smaller concern than the offensive line as the Aggies bring back experience from last year, but this could turn into a bigger concern if injuries start playing a big role again and if this group has trouble producing. The receivers group for Utah State ranks in the middle of the conference so finding guys that can contribute as a group in this room is going to be critical for Utah State to have success.
This season if the injuries aren’t such an issue, Utah State should be able to improve on their offensive numbers.
Key Stat: 22.2 points per game and 195.2 passing yards per game needs to change to stay competitive in the Mountain West, especially with the divisions eliminated.
Wildcard: Wide receiver Colby Bowman has two things going for him that could make him an impact player on this offense: His size at 6’2, 200 lbs. and his three year experience at a power five school. While he only recorded seven receptions for 43 yards last season he was still able to gain valuable experience off the field, which should translate into progress and production at Utah State. He is a projected starter for the Aggies and is going to have the opportunity to complement Terrell Vaughn nicely.
Reasons for optimism: This season Utah State adds Joe Cauthen in as defensive coordinator. Cauthen has previous coaching experience at schools such as Stephen F. Austin (defensive coordinator), Buffalo (defensive coordinator), Arkansas (defensive analyst), Houston (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach), and Arkansas State (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach). Utah State returns five defensive starters in senior defensive tackle Hale Motu’Apuaka (35 tackles, three tackles for loss, five sacks), sophomore linebacker Max Alford (40 tackles, four tackles for loss), senior linebacker MJ Tafisi (69 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one sack) senior cornerback Michael Anyanwu (47 tackles, two tackles for loss, 11 pass breakups, one interception), and sophomore fully safety Ike Larsen (33 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two pass breakups, and four interceptions). Utah State will have talent on the defensive line, in the middle, and in the defensive backfield, so avoiding injuries are going to be key to improving on allowing 31.2 yards per game and 399 yards on defense per game.
The linebacker group also returns Kaleo Neves who stepped up last year and made 59 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and also made three pass breakups. Omari Okeke also returns after gaining experience last year with 18 tackles and two tackles for loss. The group also adds Gavin Barthiel from Washington State and Logan Pili from BYU so there is depth in this group that should make this a productive unit.
Reasons for concern: While Utah State does bring back returning talent they also lose a lot of production with the absence of AJ Vongphachanh (101 tackles, 2 sacks), Hunter Reynolds (93 tackles, three interceptions), Daniel Grzesiak (52 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), Byron Vaughns (56 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), and Kaleo Neves (59 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks.
The defensive end position is a big question mark for the Aggies with the loss of Vaughns so the pressure is going to turn to the interior of the defense, which has solid depth with Motu’Apuka and Vakauta taking over. Three starters entering the transfer portal does not help the Aggies as they try to improve on last year's numbers. Last season Utah State gave up 194 rushing yards per game, their worst output since 2019 when they gave up 202 yards per game. If Utah State struggles to find a productive defensive end, it is going to be difficult to keep the high rushing numbers down early on, especially as Utah State faces Iowa and Air Force in September.
Key Stat: There are two numbers that Utah State needs to improve on to have more success this season, which are the 31.2 points per game allowed and 399 yards allowed per game. These numbers should be improved with younger talent gaining experience and hopefully are better than last year.
Wildcard: Junior defensive tackle Poukesi Vakauta is going to have a much bigger role this season after making a small impact last season so the numbers of 13 tackles and two tackles for loss should improve drastically as he received experience on the line last season and will be looked upon as a leader this season.
Reasons for optimism: Utah State adds JUCO transfer William Testa and several key parts returns a couple of key pieces from a unit that ranked #12 in the nation last year.
Reasons for concern: Utah State needs to find more production at the punt returner spot and if that production becomes difficult to find then the Aggies are going to be starting in bad field position, which does not help support an offense that is looking to improve on its numbers from last season.
Wildcard: Wide Receiver Terrell Vaughn returns and helped to spark this unit last season, gaining 503 kick return yards (26.5) and a touchdown. His continued production will be an important piece of this special teams unit, setting the offense up in better position.
2023 Utah State Schedule
Saturday, Sep. 2nd: at Iowa; 9:00 A.M. PST, FS1
Saturday, Sep. 9th: vs Idaho State; TBD
Friday, Sep. 15th: at Air Force; 5:00 P.M. PST, CBSSN *
Saturday, Sep. 23rd: vs JMU; TBD
Saturday, Sep. 30th: at UCONN; 9:00 A.M. PST, CBSSN
Saturday, Oct. 7th: vs Colorado State; TBD *
Saturday, Oct. 13th: vs Fresno State; 5:00 P.M. PST, CBSSN *
Saturday, Oct. 21st: at San Jose State; 4:00 P.M. PST, CBSSN *
Saturday, Nov. 4th: at San Diego State; TBD *
Saturday, Nov. 11th: vs Nevada; TBD *
Saturday, Nov. 18th; vs Boise State; 4:00 P.M. PST, CBSSN *
Friday, Nov. 24th; at New Mexico; 12:30 P.M. PST, CBSSN *
Home games in bold
* = Conference game
Utah State had their worst season since 2019, when the Aggies finished 7-6, losing in the Frisco Bowl to Kent State. That season Jordan Love only passed for over 300 yards four times and wasn’t helped by a receivers group that had trouble producing. This season, Cooper Legas and the team as a whole will not be helped by key players on defense that entered the transfer portal but Terrell Vaughn and Colby Bowman should be important pieces that add production as they progress in their development. Utah State must improve on offense in order to be successful as the Aggies never surpassed 400 yards of offense and only passed 300 twice. Last season the defense allowed over 400 yards six times, which is also a statistic that needs to change. Injuries contributed to these numbers as did inexperience and inconsistency but Utah State returns experience from last year and should be able to improve on a 6-7 season. The edge position and offensive line positions are overall areas of concern for the Aggies as there isn’t a lot of production returning in these two position groups, so Utah State will need to find contributors right away.
Looking at the schedule, Utah State not only plays Iowa on the road but must also face four of the best teams in the conference in Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State, and Boise State, which will not help the Aggies.
In order for Utah State to have early success, they need to be consistent on offense and steady on defense. Allowing 400 yards to Air Force to start off conference play isn’t going to cut it. The difficult season that Utah State had last season brought experience for younger players that should translate to a stronger team this season.
Best case scenario: The best case scenario is that Cooper Legas heats up fast and more playmakers at receiver emerge. There is no number one top guy so using the abilities of Vaughn, and the development of Bowman and others such as Jaylen Royals and tight end Broc Lane is going to be important. In this scenario, the Aggies would lose to Iowa and beat Idaho State before facing Air Force on the road, which turns into a win for Utah State. The Aggies would then win three more before falling to Fresno State and winning at San Jose State and then split games Nevada (win) at home and San Diego State on the road (lose). The Aggies would also split the final two games of the season between Boise State (lose) and New Mexico (win). That would put the Aggies at 8-4, 6-3 in conference play. This would not be enough to get to the Mountain West championship game but it would be an improvement on last season.
Worst case scenario: The worst case scenario is that the offensive line cannot find answers and Utah State struggles to protect Legas and create holes for the running backs. In this scenario, Utah State would be exposed by Iowa on the road and then struggle past Idaho State at home to start the season at 1-1. Utah State would then drop a game to Air Force and win a slight one against James Madison before entering Mountain West play again. Utah State would then lose on the road to UConn and beat Colorado State at home. The Aggies would then drop games to Fresno State, San Jose State, and San Diego State. Utah State would beat the Wolfpack at home before losing to Boise State and then winning their final game of the season at New Mexico. This would place the Aggies at 6-6 overall and 3-5 in conference play, which would be worse than last season.
What’s probably going to happen: As previously mentioned, injuries had a large impact on Utah State last season and avoiding injuries this season should help the Aggies to improve. The transfer portal hurt Utah State in the Spring as they lost some key players but there are others that gained experience last year that will be ready to step up. Two big keys to early success for Utah State is to be aggressive on the offensive line and find ways for the receivers to contribute as a group rather than focusing on one receiver. The worst case scenario is more unlikely to happen as Utah State does return players such as Hale Motu’Apuaka and Poukesi Vakauta on the defensive line and Max Alford and MJ Tafisi at the linebacker spots. Michael Anyanwu and Ike Larsen also return in the defensive backfield for Utah State. Despite the transfer portal losses on defense and the experience lost on offense, I expect Utah State to come close to matching the record of the best case scenario and go 8-5 (6-4) as Blake Anderson leads this team to another bowl game, and this time a bowl win.