Utah State finished the 2023 season 6-7 overall with a 45-22 loss to Georgia State in the Idaho Potato Bowl and went 4-4 in conference play, finishing 6th place in the Mountain West. The Aggies started the season with a 24-14 loss to Iowa before putting up 78 points on Idaho State. Utah State would then lose two games to Air Force (39-21) and James Maddison (45-38) before winning games against UConn (34-33) and Colorado State (44-24). Utah State would lose two straight after the two wins, losing games to Fresno State (37-32) and San Jose State (42-21). The Aggies would pull off two straight against San Diego State (32-24) and Nevada (41-24) and would end the season with a loss to Boise State (45-10) and a win against New Mexico (44-41).
Grading the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams in 2023
Cooper Legas led the team in passing yards this season, throwing for 1,815 passing yards and 19 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Legas was sacked 20 times last season and finished the year with a quarterback rating of 158.3. There was a quarterback controversy early in the season between Cooper Legas and McCae Hillstead, but injuries to Hillstead and Legas finding his rhythm created more stability for Cooper Legas. Jalen Royals led Utah State in receiving yards and touchdowns, going for 1,080 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on 71 receptions. Terrell Vaughn was second on the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, catching 89 passes for 933 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. Micah Davis was third on the team with 36 receptions for 628 yards and David would also score six touchdowns.
Overall it wasn’t the quarterbacks or receivers that stalled the Utah State offense for a good portion of the season. It was the lack of protection for the quarterbacks, with Legas being sacked 20 times and Hillstead 18 times. The offensive line likely did not help the production in the run game either. Utah State was one of the worst teams in the nation in tackles for loss allowed as the Aggies allowed 7.15 tackles for loss per game, ranking 116th out of the 130 FBS teams. Utah State was also one of the worst teams in the nation in allowing sacks as the Aggies gave up 44 sacks throughout the season and allowed 3.38 sacks per game, which ranks 117th. These statistics clearly showed that the offensive line did not play the way they were anticipated to play as a group. This also played a part in Utah State not getting a 1000-yard rusher and struggling with consistency in the run game throughout the season. Davon Booth was the closest to 1000 yards and rushed for 805 yards and six touchdowns. Rahsul Faison was just behind Booth, rushing for 736 yards and five touchdowns. Robert Briggs Jr. also played and rushed for 420 yards and two touchdowns on the season. It was not that Utah State could not run the ball (the Aggies ranked 29th in the country and rushed for 184.4 yards per game) it was the consistency that stemmed from tackles for loss.
Utah State struggled in the first quarter of football games this season. Seven different times the Aggies went down by more than one score in the first quarter and there were several times where Utah State did not score in the first quarter at all. Utah State used the 3rd and 4th quarters to score a majority of their points this season, with the exception of scoring five touchdowns in the second quarter against Idaho State.
Penalties also hurt Utah State plenty this season as the Aggies tied for 123rd nationally, committing 97 penalties over 13 games for a total of 921 penalty yardage. While Utah State’s offense put up decent numbers and points per game, it was consistency that stalled this offense from being even better.
Defense Grade for 2023 Season
Utah State’s total defense rankings among Division I FBS teams this season was 117 out of 130. The Aggies 433.1 yards per game and an average of 5.79 yards per play. Utah State also gave up 59 touchdowns to opposing teams. The Aggies ranked 60th in passing yards allowed, allowing 219.6 per game. Utah State ranked 126th in the nation in rushing yards allowed this season, allowing 213.5 rushing yards per play. Utah State ranked 100th in the country this season in allowing third down conversions, allowing 42.4% of third downs to be converted on defense. The Aggies were also tied for 59th in sacks this season, gaining 29 overall sacks throughout the season. These are statistics that show that Utah State was near the bottom half of division teams in overall defense.
The big statistic that told the story of how the defense performed this season? Utah State ranked 120th in scoring defense this season, giving up an average of 34.69 points per game and a total of 451 points throughout the season. There were moments when Utah State was competitive in games then the Aggies would start to fall apart, especially on defense. A perfect example of this was the game against Boise State. The Aggies had a 10 -0 lead on the Broncos in the second quarter and seemed to be finding a rhythm before the Aggies gave up 31 points to the Broncos in the same second quarter, including two 33 + yard touchdown runs to George Holani, one of them going for 75 yards. Another example is the San Jose State game. The Aggies gave up 14 in the first quarter but answered in the second to make the score 14-14 at the half. The Spartans would then go on to score 28 points in the second half while the Aggies only put up 7 in the 4th quarter. One final example is the Georgia State loss in the bowl game. The Aggies had made it close with the Panthers through the first quarter, only trailing 21-14. Georgia State would then go on to score in the second, third, and fourth quarters while the Aggies only scored again in the fourth quarter. These three games all provide instances where Utah State’s defense was not able to hold up and the Aggies ended up falling out of these closer at the time games.
One of the most impressive defensive players for the Aggies this season was linebacker MJ Tafisi, who made 142 total tackles and forced two fumbles. Safety Ike Larsen led the team in interceptions with four and made 102 total tackles. Safeties Anthony Switzer and Devin Dye both had interceptions, Dye with two interceptions and Switzer with one. Switzer made 85 total tackles and also had three sacks while Dye had 81 total tackles and also made seven pass deflections. While Utah State had individual players that put up good numbers, overall the unit just did not come together to keep Utah State in close games.
Special Teams Grade for 2023 Season
During the 2023 season Utah State ranked 67th in punt returns (averaging 8.63 yards per return), 123rd in punt return defense (allowing an average of 14.87 yards per return), 67th in punt returns (8.63 yards per return), 73rd in kickoff return defense (allowing 20.38 yards per return), and 101st in NET punting yards, averaging 36.76 yards per punt over 62 punts. Throughout the season Junior Elliott Nimrod made 41 of his 43 extra point attempts (95.3%) and made 11 of his 14 field goal attempts (78.6%). Nimrod’s longest field goal of 45 yards.
What may have impacted the Utah State offense throughout the season is the poor return on punts as field position is an important way to get an offense going. Utah State’s kicking game was decent enough throughout the season. What affected Utah State on special teams was poor punt and kickoff return defense and short gains on punt and kickoff returns. During the 2023 season, Utah State gave up just one special teams touchdown, a 79-yard punt return to Tory Horton.
Utah State, again, was impeded by poor punt return and kickoff defense and a lack of yards gained on kickoffs and punts. The Aggies were unable to flip the field and oftentimes put their offense into difficult field position.
Overall thoughts and a look into the 2024 season
Overall it was a disappointing season for Utah State and a bowl game seemed unlikely, so Utah State making a bowl game still shows improvement throughout the season. The Aggies were in more of the games than the scores show, but poor first-half performances cost the Aggies throughout the season, for example against James Maddison the Aggies gave up 17 points in the first quarter and 21 in the second quarter to fall behind 28-17 at the half. Against Air Force the Aggies allowed 22 points in the first quarter that made a huge difference in the game. Utah State struggled with injuries and consistency with the quarterbacks as Cooper Legas was benched early in the season in favor of McCae Hillstead, who went out injured. Cooper Legas would return against UConn and had one of the best games of the season, throwing for 204 yards and three touchdowns on 11-13 passing (85%).
In 2024 Cooper Legas returns but the Aggies do bring in Bryson Barnes from Utah who played for the Utes last year sparingly as he took the place of injured players. In addition, the Aggies also bring in Iowa transfer quarterback Spencer Petras, who threw for 1,725 yards and five touchdowns last season. Utah State also brought in a lot of defensive talent for next season from the transfer portal and a promising defensive lineman in Marlin Dean who was ranked as the 12th recruit in the 2024 class. The Aggies return Anthony Switzer and Jalen Royals which are two big additions. The Aggies also add three-star linebacker Tanner Williams, three-star tight end Grayson Brousseau, three-star offensive tackle Camden Jury, and three-star wide receiver Tate Kjar in the 2024 recruiting class. In addition to the other names previously mentioned in the transfer portal, the Aggies add three-star defensive lineman Miguel Jackson from Charlotte, three-star defensive lineman Ricky Lolohea from Oklahoma State, three-star safety Jadon Pearson from Utah, three-star defensive lineman Macyo Williams from Kent State, three-star linebacker Will Shaffer from Arizona State, three-star offensive tackle Trey Andersen from Pittsburgh, and three-star IOL George Maile from Baylor.
Utah State head coach Blake Anderson will be entering his fourth season as head coach and is 23-17 as the head coach of the Aggies. In 2021 Anderson led the Aggies to a win against Washington State on the road and to a 46-13 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West conference championship game. The Aggies would also win the bowl game against Oregon State, 24-13, finishing the 2021 season 11-3 (6-2). In 2022 Utah State experienced four losses in September and only two losses after the poor start to the season. Utah State would go 6-7 (5-3) and lose in the First Responder Bowl to Memphis, 38-10.
2023 was not the type of season that Utah State wanted to have and there is going to be more pressure on Blake Anderson to deliver next season. With building excitement from the players that are returning and the additions that the Aggies have made from the transfer portal, Utah State will be in a better position to compete in the Mountain West in 2024.