The crossroads of Utah State football

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A version of this story ran in the Utah State Football Preview magazine, produced by the Utah Statesman.

It wasn’t long ago that Utah State was staring at the inside track for a Mountain West championship. The Aggies welcomed the No. 21-ranked Boise State Broncos to Logan on October 16, 2015. The Broncos had entered the season as heavy favorites to win their second consecutive MW title. The Aggies, in their third season in the MW, were picked second in preseason polls and received two first-place votes, but were largely considered secondary to Boise’s dominance of the Mountain Division. With Boise entering the game on a 12-game winning streak in the series, there was little reason to expect differently on that October night.

The best thing about sports is how little we know about them.

The Aggie defense forced seven turnovers in the first half alone, including a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by current Green Bay Packer Marwin Evans to close the half and put USU up 45-10. Coasting through the second half, Utah State won 52-26.

Since then, the Aggies have gone 5-14 since that October uprising. What initially appeared to be a coronation has since become a turning point, a question mark, and a scapegoat. On-field disappointments have only been equaled by their off-field counterparts. Since that October night, Utah State has had more players arrested than they’ve had victories. As the team’s off-field issues have grown more numerous and ever louder, the on-field play has faltered, and a sense of impending doom has creeped over the Aggie faithful.

Is that anxiety warranted? Yes. Again, we’re 5-14 in our last 19 games and there’s no way to sugarcoat that. But does that mean all is lost and we should start chanting “woe, is me!” before kickoff?

Infallibly, no. As long as sports coerce us into entrust our sleeve-worn hearts to the bouncing of an oddly-shaped ball, optimism will abound as we attempt to convince ourselves of the best possible outcome. And there are plenty of sources of optimism as the Aggies embark on the 2017 season.

Last year ended USU’s five-year streak of bowl appearance, with a dispiriting 3-9 campaign leaving the Aggies well short. Look at individual games, however, and that distance shrinks. The Aggies finished 0-4 in one possession games, a category that splits closer to .500 over the long-term. Utah State also finished last season with a -5 turnover margin, which should also drift more towards zero this year. Both statistics are large reasons why college football analyst Phil Steele predicts the Aggies to return to bowl eligibility this season.

New faces in Logan also feature to bolster the Aggies’ efforts to return to the cream of the MW crop. New offensive coordinator David Yost brings with him a pedigree of experience and success in the Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12. A new offensive system could be the perfect alleviation for USU’s 79th-ranked scoring offense from a year ago. Predicated on fast play between snaps, stretching the defense vertically, and exposing the weak spots of a defense, Yost’s offensive plan is reason enough to believe senior Kent Myers may still deliver on the promise he showed as a freshman.

Speaking of freshmen, the Aggies hauled in one of their best recruiting classes in recent years over the summer. Mixing in a variety of talented freshman and plug-in-play junior college transfers along with redshirted players from a season ago, reinforcements are well on their way. TE Carson Terrell, WR Jordan Nathan, and OL Alfred Edwards all look positioned to contribute as freshmen. Juniors like LB Louy Compton, OL Sean Taylor, CB Deante Fortenberry, and OL Roman Andrus are all set to provide instant depth and playmaking as JC transfers.

USU has also been ravaged by injuries in years past, and a full season of health could drastically change the perception of Aggie football. Sophomore TE Dax Raymond is a 6-5, 245 lbs monster that could be poised for a breakout season after spending much of his time on the sideline a year ago with a back injury. Senior safety and vocal leader Dallin Leavitt also missed several games during last season on top of the Aggies losing last year’s starting RB Devantae Mays for much of the year. Mays is now with Evans in Green Bay, but this year’s corps of running backs in seniors Tonny Lindsay and LaJuan Hunt and junior Justen Hervey would obviously benefit with a year of relative health.

The defensive line, the long-time heart of the success of the Aggie defense, is also set for a renaissance. Two years ago, the line was hit hard when four of its members, Adewale Adeoye, Edmund Faimalo, John Taylor, and Travis Seefeldt were all involved in a car accident in June of 2015. The following offseason, DE Brady Holt was also involved in a serious car accident, breaking multiple vertebrae and sustaining a neck fracture and brain damage in the process. All five players survived their ordeals, and in Holt’s case, the recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. Only Adeoye, now a junior, remains on the roster, the rest having since graduated or retired. As the tragedy of the last two off-seasons continues to heal, the line looks to reclaim its spot as not just one of the MW’s best, but as one of the best in the country.

The road ahead for Utah State football is still tough. Boise State, Wyoming, Colorado State, and BYU all venture to Maverik Stadium this season, posing a brutal home schedule for the Aggies, who attained all three victories last season on Merlin Olsen Field. The road harbors no safety either, however, as the Aggies face four bowl winners from a year ago away from Cache Valley. And USU hasn’t won away from home since Fresno State in 2015, one week prior to that infamous Boise State game. Bowl eligibility is certainly a possibility this season, but it will be no bed of roses and no pleasure cruise.

But as the cliché goes, the hottest fires produce the hardest steel. This year’s rendition of Aggie football is rough around the edges and needs its share of refinement. Players and staff alike will share in at least some of that sentiment. The pressures of the season can either eat away at the team like limestone or harden them like diamonds.

The Aggie fan in all of us wishes for the same outcome.

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