If you’ve ever suffered a major physical injury, you know that the path back to full health is long, arduous, and it will hurt like hell.
Perhaps the rectification of the Utah State football team follows a similar path.
Last year’s 3-9 Aggie squad was probably better than that 3-9 record would suggest, but problems that had lived just below the surface for years fully unveiled themselves in the Aggies’ worst season since 2008. While no realistic fan expected a miraculous turnaround to 10 wins or more, most at least wanted to see some amount of progress.
So far, we’ve seen several signs for optimism, with emboldened victories versus Idaho State, San Jose State, and BYU. Are any of those teams actually good? Probably not, but those were games the Aggies failed to win last season. But those wins have been balanced out by absolute thrashings at the hands of Wisconsin, Wake Forest, and Colorado State. At this point of the season, we’re still not entirely sure if the problems and ailments that afflicted Utah State last season have been remedied to any extent.
In the rehabilitation process, there comes a point when you must abandon your cautiousness towards your injury. Until you fully test whatever the injury was, you will never fully recover. Saturday’s homecoming game versus Wyoming is Utah State’s trust fall.
By most accounts, Wyoming is a good team, or at least better than any of the opponents the Aggies have bested this year. However, they also fall short of the plateau of a team like Colorado State, and far short of Wisconsin or Wake Forest. In summary, Wyoming is the team that Utah State fans are hoping the Aggies can be this year. If USU wishes to be considered on that level, though, the Aggies must win on Saturday. A win pushes Utah State to the cusp of bowl eligibility. A loss consigns USU to the lower tier of the Mountain West.
For a team that’s personified Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde over the first six games of the season, projecting whether or not USU can make a statement is muddy at best. In the Aggies’ wins, USU has looked like a finely-tuned machine on both offense and defense. In losses, much less so. On the year, Utah State hasn’t even put together consecutive games of at least 305 yards on offense.
Wyoming’s offense hasn’t fared much better, averaging 282 yards per game this season, fifth-worst in the country. NFL prospect QB Josh Allen has fallen well short of expectations, throwing for only 877 yards in five games, with six touchdowns and three interceptions. There is a stark lack of talent around Allen, as Wyoming has only mustered a 3.3 yards per carry average on the season, and only four receivers have topped 70 yards on the season (USU has eight such players). USU should be able to match up well defensively versus Wyoming’s offense.
The issue in the Aggies’ losses, however, have been the ability to generate turnovers. Utah State has forced an average of 4.7 turnovers in their three wins, compared to just .7 turnovers per game in the Aggies’ losses. Allen is somewhat interception-prone, throwing 18 over his career, but the Cowboys have only turned the ball over five times this season, the 12th-best mark in the country. Utah State’s chances on Saturday may rely on the Aggies’ ability to change that narrative.
If USU forces another five turnovers, then their offensive struggles may not matter. If the turnover margin stays relatively even, the Aggies could be in trouble. Wyoming has been fairly stout on defense, allowing only 345 yards per game. Those numbers are buoyed by several games versus Texas State and FCS Gardner-Webb, however. The Cowboys surrendered 558 and 450 yards to Oregon and Hawaii, respectively, both at home. Wyoming has yet to face pressure on the road this season, with their only game outside of Laramie coming in an opening-week 24-3 loss at Iowa. Saturday’s matchup will be a solid gauge for the Cowboys’ defense as much as for the Aggies’ offense.
Utah State should play competitively versus Wyoming, but only if they trust their roster and trust their schemes. Last year was a major injury to USU football, but the first six games of 2017 have shown glimpses of progress. The Aggies’ season may hinge on that continuing.