Utah State football vs. Colorado State preview

If Utah State football really wants to turn some heads, Saturday’s showdown with the visiting Colorado State Rams presents a prime opportunity to do so.

The Aggies have earned a promising 3-2 start to their season thanks in large part to a rejuvenated defense, including back-to-back victories over the last two weeks. Senior cornerback Jalen Davis leads a group capable of turning games upside-down with forced turnovers — a quality USU will desperately need this weekend against the Rams’ versatile offense.

Rams quarterback Nick Stevens, leader of last year’s stunning double-digit comeback win over USU, returns as the starter for what just might be the most balanced offense in the Mountain West. The senior is averaging more than 300 yards passing through five games, and his favorite receiver is back, too — senior Michael Gallop, who burned Utah State for 140 yards in 2016, has already established himself as one of the conference’s top receiving threats by piling up an average of 96 yards per game (24th FBS).

Colorado State’s offensive versatility has the Rams leading the conference in several categories, complemented by an eight-man rotation on the offensive line that simply doesn’t allow pressure. Coach Mike Bobo’s Squad has surrendered just two sacks all season (6th FBS) and has successfully carved running lanes into defensive front sevens all year, as the Rams are sixth in the nation in third down conversion rate (54.2 percent). Long, sustained drives with the ability to pound out rushing yards or line up in both three-tight end sets and four-wide shotgun looks makes CSU extraordinarily difficult to contain.

Perhaps the Rams’ only glaring offensive weakness is Stevens’ varying deep pass accuracy. Though without a turnover last week in Hawaii, Stevens has thrown six interceptions this year — usually despite excellent protection up front from hungry pass-rushers. If there’s a way for Utah State to steal this game out from under one of the conference’s strongest contenders, it begins with the Aggies’ FBS-leading ability to force turnovers (16 total this season, 12 over the last two games). Utah State’s electric defense leads the nation in defensive scores (4), and with the trench battle likely favoring the visiting Rams, the call to keep this game competitive will once again fall to Davis, senior safety Dallin Leavitt and the rest of the opportunistic Aggie secondary.

Despite posting 40+ points in its last two outings, Utah State’s offense has reason to be concerned. There are some verified studs catching passes from senior quarterback Kent Myers this season, including big-bodied wideout Ron’quavion Tarver and redshirt sophomore tight end Dax Raymond, but the Aggies have yet to find consistent success running the ball. CSU’s defense is an average unit that could struggle against a stout Aggie O-line on passing downs, but without the ability to earn first downs on the ground and control the clock the home team will be hard-pressed to keep up.

Myers will have to play his sharpest game of the season to keep the Aggies in this one, and keep passes from falling into the hands of an inconsistent CSU secondary. The Rams’ average pass rush means Myers should have time to go through his reads and commit to tucking the ball for yards on the ground if nothing develops. The offense will need to capitalize on last week’s momentum against BYU to seize the handful of big play opportunities CSU will likely offer Saturday.

If there’s one last element working in Utah State’s favor, it’s a very real home field advantage. The Rams haven’t won in Logan since a double-overtime 35-34 outing in 2011. Coach Matt Wells has done a fine job protecting the Aggie home turf with a 20-6 record in Maverik stadium, and his squad will not soon forget last year’s collapse in Ft. Collins. A friendly environment, a chip on the shoulder and a secondary capable of generating turnovers at any time may be just enough to get USU a surprise win over the Rams.

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