Utah State football opponent previews

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

@ WISCONSIN (Friday,  Sept. 1 — 7 p.m.)

A perennial contender in the Big Ten West, the Badgers appear primed for another strong season. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is under center again after a promising freshman campaign. He’ll be reliant on senior tight end Troy Fumagalli, who led the team in receptions a season ago and is expected to take on a larger role going forward. While not explosive last year, the Wisconsin offense can expect consistency with the return of all five starting offensive linemen from last year’s squad.

It’s on the defensive side of the ball where Wisconsin asserts its dominance. Last season, the Badgers boasted a top five scoring defense and finished seventh in yards per game allowed. The core of the defense took a hit when senior linebacker Jack Cichy went down with a knee injury in fall practice, but the rest of last year’s front seven returns and the defense should be as indomitable as ever.

Wisconsin came within three touchdowns of an undefeated season in 2016 with seven-point losses to Michigan, Ohio State (in overtime) and Penn State being the only blemishes on the schedule. Though aided by playing in the weaker division, the Badgers should again be a contender for the Big Ten championship in 2017.

IDAHO STATE (Thursday, Sept. 7 — 6 p.m.)

The Idaho State Bengals are hoping this season plays out similar to the last time they visited Logan, in 2014. The Bengals lost that game, but went on to an 8-4 record that season. It’s the winning season the team has had since 2003 and only the second time the squad has won more than three games. Once again, Idaho State is in the cellar of the Big Sky conference this season, picked to finish last in both the media and the coaches’ polls by virtue of consecutive 2-9 seasons. The Bengals aren’t worried about winning a stout Big Sky conference — simply being competitive would be a significant improvement.

Junior quarterback Tanner Gueller is the key man on offense. The Rochester, Washington product threw for 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns last year, placing him solidly in the middle of the pass-happy Big Sky. Gone, however, are the top two receiving threats from last year. Filling the void will be senior Hagen Graves, who caught 40 passes for just over 400 yards, and Mitch Gueller, the brother of Tanner. Mitch, though three years older than Tanner, is just a sophomore after spending time in the Phillies organization playing baseball. He was solid in his first year in a Bengals uniform, catching 36 passes for 509 yards.

Defensively, the Bengals are a mess. The crew was one of the worst in the conference last season, allowing more than 40 points per game and more than 500 yards per outing. A bright spot is the line, with sophomore Chance Salutregui and Tate Razor anchoring a pass rush that was competent at getting to the quarterback last season.

@ WAKE FOREST (Saturday, Sept. 16 — 1 p.m.)

Wake Forest has taken significant strides in the three years Dave Clawson has been at the helm, earning the team’s first winning record since 2008 last season. The defense is the strength of the squad, ranking in the top 40 in the country in yards per game and top 25 in scoring defense a year ago. The offense has begun the climb out of the basement it was in when Clawson arrived (finishing last in the country in yards per game in 2014), but still has a long way to go. If the defense regresses at all next season, the Demon Deacons might struggle to return to a bowl game.

The Deacons are looking for an offensive spark from sophomore quarterback Kendall Hinson, who missed last season with a knee injury but brings a dynamic attack. Fellow sophomore Cade Carney brings some size (215 pounds) and scoring prowess (six touchdowns) to the halfback position while junior Tabari Hines is the lead-threat at wideout.

First-team freshman All-American Jessie Bates III anchors the defensive backfield. Though he is unlikely to improve on the two interceptions returned for touchdowns he had last season, he should continue to be a consistent ball-hawking threat at the safety position. Anchoring the defensive line is senior end Duke Ejiofor, who led the team with 10.5 sacks a year ago.

@ SAN JOSE STATE (Saturday, Sept. 23 — 5:30 p.m.)

How much impact can an offensive line have on an offense? The 2017 San José State Spartans could prove to be an interesting case study. All five linemen return from a year ago, bringing their 123 combined starts with them. Junior tight end Josh Oliver, primarily used as a blocker in years past, is the only other returning starter on that side of the ball. Though he was given time on the field a season ago, sophomore quarterback Josh Love is projected to get his first start in a Spartan uniform this year. With a visit from South Florida and road trips to Texas and the University of Utah, the Spartan offense will need the line to carry the unit to avoid a painful start to the season.

On the defensive side, SJSU brings back seven starters from a squad that allowed more than 30 points per game a year ago. The rushing defense was particularly egregious as opponents picked up nearly 250 yards per game on the ground. The defensive backs are a strength, however, as first-team all-conference cornerback Andre Chachere and second-team honoree safety Maurice McKnight each return.

New coach Brent Brennan will need some surprising developments to help the team avoid a fourth-straight season without a bowl appearance. The Spartans will need to take advantage of a crucial stretch in the middle of the season — home against Utah State, at UNLV, home for Fresno State and at Hawaii — because they finish the year with games against BYU, San Diego State, Nevada, Colorado State and Wyoming. It seems likely that San José State is in for another building year.

BYU (Friday, Sept. 29 — 6 p.m.)

As usual, the Cougars have a front-loaded schedule, with games against LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State in the first month and a half. It will be difficult for head coach Kalani Sitake to repeat the success he had in his first season with that schedule, but the extra home game the team earns by virtue of a road trip to Hawaii should be enough to get BYU to nine wins again. The Cougars’ losses last year were all close — they lost four games by a total of eight points — but also pulled out a number of narrow victories. A shift in close-game performance in either direction could lead to a significantly different season for BYU in 2017.

Junior quarterback Tanner Mangum is the front man on offense. He has 13 starts over two seasons under his belt and, with the departure of super senior Taysom Hill, will be expected to lead the offense. That job will be made more difficult with the departure of career rushing leader Jamaal Williams and the offense’s top three receivers, but BYU should have the talent to replace them. Look for Mountain Crest High School product Moroni Laulu-Pututau to have a breakout season after switching from receiver to tight end this season.

The defense looks to be the strength of the team again this year. Senior safety Micah Hannemann is back to anchor a talented backfield. The squad also has returning starters at the linebacker positions in Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard. The question is on the defensive line, where a whole new crew will be taking over the starting positions.

COLORADO STATE (Saturday, Oct. 7 — 2:30 p.m.)

Quietly, Colorado State extended their bowl appearance streak to four years last season with a 7-6 campaign. The Rams finished a distant fifth in the division, however, losing to three of the four teams above them in the standings. This year, CSU is picked to finish second in the division, and that optimism riding largely on the arm of senior QB Nick Stevens. Stevens split time in only 10 games last season and still threw for 1,933 yards with a 19-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This year, Stevens has been named the starter since spring camp and looks to guide CSU to their first conference title since 2002.

All told, 14 total starters return from last year’s squad. The receiving corps is led by senior Michael Gallup, who ranked 14th in the country for receiving yards a season ago, tallying 1,272 yards on the season with 14 touchdowns. Senior and MW Preseason All-Conference team selection OL Jake Bennett anchors an offensive line that should allow plenty of time for the Rams to attack downfield. Should the Rams fail through the air, they also return their top four rushers, led by senior RB Dalyn Dawkins, who eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage on the season.

The Rams switched from a 4-3 base defense in 2015 to their current 3-4 scheme under DC Marty English and are still adapting. With eight returning starters on defense, this year may bring a quantum leap. The linebackers are stacked, returning senior Evan Colorito and junior Josh Watson, who ranked a respective fourth and second in tackles last season. If a weak link exists for the Rams, it’s in the secondary. Sophomore cornerback Anthony Hawkins started four games last season… at wide receiver. This year, the sophomore looks to play an integral part of the secondary, albeit alongside seniors Justin Sweet and Jake Schlager.

WYOMING (Saturday, Oct. 14 — 2:30 p.m.)

How ‘bout those Cowboys! The Pokes burst onto the national scene in Craig Bohl’s third year on the job, winning the Mountain division en route to an 8-6 record. Wyoming will again bring national attention to Laramie this season with potential NFL first-round selection Josh Allen at quarterback and nonconference matchups against Iowa and Oregon. Will the Cowboys be able to replicate the close-game success they had last year?

Allen will need to be the franchise leader NFL scouts are hoping he is as standout running back Brian Hill and top receiver Tanner Gentry are both gone. Allen will have a green crew at the skill positions with projected starting back Milo Hall having zero career carries and receiver C.J. Johnson leading the returners at receiver with just 21 receptions.

Defensively, the Pokes are anchored by two-time all-conference safety Andrew Wingard. Last season he led the team with 131 tackles and added two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Like his offensive counterpart at quarterback, Wingard is already getting some early NFL attention. The rest of the defense is less effective, however. Wyoming allowed more than 450 yards per game and finished outside the top 100 in points allowed per game, giving up more than 34 per outing. In fact, only once did the Cowboys hold an opponent under 20 points. If the offense takes a step back, will the defense be able to make up the gap?

@ UNLV (Saturday, Oct. 21 — 4 p.m.)

Defense will likely be a weakness for UNLV again this year. Only three starters return from a unit that allowed more than 35 points per game last season. The strength of the defense is the tackle position, anchored by seniors Jason Fao and Mike Hughes Jr. The rest of the unit is inexperienced and will need to develop rapidly. Linebacker Gabe McCoy could have a breakout season after receiving praise from the coaching staff during spring ball.

Offensively, the Rebels will be handing the keys to electric redshirt freshman Armani Rogers. The dual-threat quarterback was one of the top recruits at his position in 2016 and could add to an already exciting offense. Running back Charles Williams will look to build on a strong freshman campaign and senior Devonte Boyd is the lead man in a deep receiving group. Coupled with a stout offensive line, led by senior tackle Kyle Saxelid, Rogers will be surrounded with experienced talent.

UNLV hasn’t appeared in a bowl game since 2013 and has finished with a winning record just once since 2000. Unfortunately for the Rebels, they’ll need some good fortune to turn those trends around this year. If a couple of defensive playmakers rise up and Rogers hits the ground running, UNLV could surprise in a weak division. Otherwise, it’ll be another long season in Las Vegas.

BOISE STATE (Saturday, Oct. 28 — 8 p.m.)

The Boise State Broncos were nine points away from an undefeated regular season in 2016, yet didn’t play for the Mountain West championship. A seven-point loss at Air Force in the final week of the season dropped the Broncos into a tie with Wyoming for the division lead, propelling the Cowboys to the title game by virtue of their win over Boise State in Laramie. Despite consistently competing at the top of the conference, the Broncos haven’t taken home the Mountain West trophy since 2014. Will that change in 2017?

Much of the pressure for Boise State will fall on junior Brett Rypien. The all-conference quarterback has thrown for nearly 7,000 yards in his 23 games but will be leading the offense without the services of workhorse back Jeremy McNichols and sure-handed safety net Thomas Sperbeck. Senior wide receiver Cedric Wilson showed some big-play potential last year and could fill in nicely as the go-to target. Sophomore back Alexander Mattison also showed flashes at times a season ago.

Defensively, the Broncos might take a step back from the unit that finished in the top 30 in scoring defense last year. Junior tackle David Moa is the leader and will anchor the middle of the unit, but the linebacking corps and the defensive backs are young. Returning starter Tyler Horton has all-conference aspirations at corner, but will need some youngsters to step up to solidify the pass defense.

@ NEW MEXICO (Saturday, Nov. 4 — 3:30 p.m.)

New Mexico has steadily improved under coach Bob Davie — consecutive bowl games with a 9-4 record last season and a tie for first-place in the division — but might struggle to maintain that level of success. The defense has seen the most significant growth in recent years, but still allowed more than 30 points per game a year ago and lost nine of its starters. The schedule will also be more difficult as the regular rotation has the Lobos facing West division foe San Diego State in addition to the already difficult Mountain opponents. Add on a November trip to College Station to take on Texas A&M and the Lobos could have one of the most difficult schedules in the conference.

Offensively, New Mexico had the most potent rushing attack in the nation in 2016, averaging 350 yards per game. Senior quarterback Lamar Jordan will no longer have to split touches and, with the departure of running back Teriyon Gipson, will be the focal point of the attack. Junior Tyrone Owens flashed last season with 1,097 yards and seven scores, while senior Richard McQuarley is the short-yardage hammer after 18 touchdowns a year ago.

Despite the loss of starters on defense, the squad does have a number of upperclassmen ready to fill in those roles. Senior Garrett Hughes is the most important player as he’ll be expected to hold the defensive line together. Senior linebacker Kimmie Carson is the other returning starter and will be looking to build on a season in which he was second on the team in tackles for a loss.

HAWAII (Saturday, Nov. 18 — TBD)

The Rainbow Warriors impressed in the first season with Nick Rolovich at the helm, finishing the season 7-7 and picking up a blowout win in the bowl game. Hawaii won’t have the benefit of surprise this season, however, and will have to prove that last year’s performance wasn’t an outlier.

Quarterback Dru Brown impressed in his sophomore campaign, throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. Rolovich implemented a creative offense that took advantage of multiple formations and misdirection to score nearly 30 points per game. Senior running back Diocemy Saint Juste is looking to build on a 1,000-yard campaign, while 6-foot-4 receiver Ammon Barker will step into the starting role outside. The front line is experienced with three returning starters and four upperclassmen among the group.

The Rainbow Warriors have a strong spine up the middle of the defense, but plenty of youth elsewhere. Middle backer Jahlani Tavai is the anchor, leading the squad with 129 tackles in the 2016 campaign. Safety Trayvon Henderson is the leader of the unit, serving as the safety valve behind the rest of the defense. Defensive tackle Viane Moala, a sophomore, could be in for a breakout season.

@ AIR FORCE (Saturday, Nov. 25 — TBD)

For fans of high-scoring games, the Air Force Academy should be must-watch television in 2017. Junior Arion Worthman is a prototype option quarterback and led the Falcons to six consecutive wins after taking over midway through the season. He rushed for nearly 700 yards and six touchdowns while also keeping defenses honest with his arm (including a 200-yard passing performance in the Arizona Bowl). Big-play threat Tim McVey is the true key to the offense, however. The senior has scored 26 career touchdowns for the Academy and owns the school’s yards-per-attempt record for rushes and receptions. At nearly 8.5 yards per carry in his career, McVey can single-handedly wreck havoc on a defensive gameplan. Air Force has the tools to put up a lot of points in 2017.

On the other side of the high-scoring spectrum is the Falcons’ defense. All but one starter is gone — including the superbly-named Academy legend Weston Steelhammer — from a unit that already struggled to slow down opposing offenses. The offense was productive enough to cover up much of the defensive struggles (AFA defeated Colorado State and San Jose State in consecutive weeks despite allowing 84 combined points) but can the Falcons do that for another season?

Troy Calhoun, one of the most respected coaches in the conference, will need his team to find an answer quickly: road games against Michigan, New Mexico and Navy, as well as a home meeting with San Diego State, all loom in the first five weeks of the season.


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