What a weekend. College football’s opening flurry of activity saw QB Josh Rosen drag UCLA out of the river Styx and into the win column after trailing Texas A&M 44-10 in the third quarter, LSU’s defense yawned its way to a shutout over BYU and UNLV managed to make history in the absolute worst kind of way (#GoBison). Amidst all that commotion, a Utah State team desperate for a bounce-back year played an AP Top Ten Wisconsin squad on the road and lost 59-10. The final tally wasn’t a good look — but in many ways USU actually outperformed expectations, even if many of last year’s disturbing habits emerged in the second half. This dichotomy left fans wondering how exactly they should feel about these 2017 picked-last-place chip-on-their-shoulder nobody-believes-in-us Aggies.
That’s what these weekly takeaways are for. Sort of. I don’t know how to feel either.
Winner: The first quarter
I mean come on! You didn’t need to convince yourself Utah State had a chance at winning to still enjoy the game’s opening stanza. Numerous tweets swirled around the notion that perhaps the Aggie defense of old was finally back from the dead, frustrating the Badgers with a pair of early sacks and forcing takeaways in what had to be the most thrilling quarter of Utah State football since Boise State in ‘15. The offense found its groove, QB Kent Myers dealt confidently from the pocket and RB LaJuan Hunt probably cost some poor Wisconsin defender his starting job after trucking him into the end zone for six. On the road in Madison with Aggie fans watching intently to see if USU was even worth keeping tabs on this year, the good guys took a 10-0 lead early and looked every bit a team that could shock the world.
Loser: The return trip back to planet Earth
Oof. Senior defensive stud Jalen Davis getting tossed for targeting signaled a steep dropoff in the defense’s confident swagger. For the record, the hit was technically targeting and did technically require expulsion from the game. Also for the record, screw targeting. It’s the second-most subjective call in sports (behind pass interference), and no one subjective call should wield such ridiculous influence over a game.
There are a dozen solutions to the current rule which still serve to protect players from head trauma — what’s so hard about implementing a penalty accumulation system? Perhaps a few personal fouls over the course of a season should result in a suspension, or maybe just sideline a guy for the remainder of a drive, or how about having a targeting 1 vs targeting 2 system a la the NBA’s flagrant foul ruling? The point is, there has to be some differentiation between a player who’s dangerously out of control (the Vontaze Burfict/Kai Nacua types) and a player who makes incidental contact with a crouching receiver’s helmet.
To their credit, the Aggie defense proved resilient for the remainder of the drive even after Davis’ departure, but the good guys could only outrun their own good fortune for so long. Wisconsin scored twice in the last 90 seconds of the half to even things up 10-10, and from then on it was nothing but nightmarish chaos in Madison.
Loser: Self-inflicted wounds
After holding a lead for one glorious lap on college football’s Rainbow Road, the Badgers red-shelled Utah State into oblivion. It was disheartening, to say the least. Then again, Wisconsin’s defense allowed 15 points per game last year, and entered this season ranked No. 9 in the country. Utah State shouldn’t have even been able to share a field with the Badgers, and yet displayed a few bright spots (which we’ll get to in a moment), before the second half devolved into an exhibition match.
The unnerving sense of another doomed season didn’t really set in until the Aggies themselves began steering completely off the road with unforced errors. Myers’ first interception bounced off of TE Carson Terrell’s chest, so let’s give him a pass on that one. The second and third? Just plain bad decisions. Forcing passes into windows he ought to avoid, testing coverage when he should throw it away — look I get that USU was trailing big and the senior was probably taking chances he normally wouldn’t in a last-ditch effort to salvage a big-time game, but after a certain point — some would say the 99-yard pick-six — it resembled the frustrating mustard stain that was last year’s pitiful offense. Myers’ final line was an uncharacteristically poor 25-of-41 for 219 yards, three picks and zero touchdowns. Yes, Wisconsin is an exceptionally talented team, but inaccurate passing is worrisome no matter the opponent.
By the way, the ground game went nowhere after the first half. LaJuan Hunt finished the game with 27 yards on seven carries with a cluster of other rushers meeting similar fates. Let’s hope this is merely a result of the best D-line Utah State will see all year.
Winner: The trenches
But speaking of D-lines, how about that Aggie front seven? Utah State tore through a Big-10 offensive line to sack QB Alex Hornibrook on three occasions, which is a tasty enough stat all on its own. Add in the fumble recovery that directly led to Utah State’s lone touchdown, and you’ve got a unit capable of turning the tide in close games — something severely lacking from last year’s crew. Shoutout to DL coach Frank Maile for piecing together what just might be the Aggies’ best position group this fall. Football is fun when the defense is having fun.
As for the offensive line, the group probably did as well as anyone could’ve asked. The relatively inexperienced group did struggle to establish lanes for the running game, but also managed to allow just one sack on the day, and — I honestly can’t believe I’m about to type this sentence — went entirely unpenalized through all four quarters(!!!). In fact, the Aggies were flagged for just two penalties all game, though each was devastating in its own way (targeting on Davis, roughing the passer on Ian Togiai). Minimizing silly mistakes would’ve likely netted USU a handful of extra wins last year, along with today’s last point…
Winner: Non-sucky special teams!
Three punts inside the Wisconsin 20 (one of which was a baller attack punt from Myers), 1-of-1 field goals made and good coverage downfield on kick returns. Nice. On one hand, special teams shouldn’t have to be such a concern, it should just exist to flip the field and aid the defense and not require special mention in this takeaways article. On the other hand, Utah State may have had the worst yards per punt in the nation last year. Actually, you know what? Hold onto that thought.
Nope, 118th. USU ranked 118th in the country in yards/punt in 2016. Out of 122, the Aggies were 118. That’s basically just a turnover at that point — although it bears mentioning, Wisconsin’s Anthony Lotti was 121st. I’ll never get back the four minutes of my life I just spent looking up punting statistics.
So how should you feel about the Aggies’ performance Friday? Cautious. Hopeful. In my very subjective opinion, the Aggies don’t suck. We should see an entirely different team Thursday at home against Idaho State (fresh off a win against Western Oregon, go wolves), but at this point it’s all still up in the air. No matter the outcome, I suspect we’ll have much to discuss this time next week.