There are two ways to learn. One, you can learn slowly, gradually, and incrementally. Alternatively, you can throw yourself into the fire. On Friday night, the Utah State football team will throw itself into the fire when they take on the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.
After a disappointing 3-9 season a year ago, head coach Matt Wells and the rest of the staff knew large amounts of changes were necessary across the team. Additions to the coaching staff like new offensive coordinator David Yost and special teams coach Mark Tommerdahl were initial steps in that plan. After what Wells referred to as the most competitive camp he’s seen in his time at USU, the Aggies will trot out 13 players against Wisconsin who will be starting their first ever game in an Aggie uniform. No starting offensive lineman has ever played a game in an Aggie uniform, let alone started. Four members of the starting front seven will also make their first starts at USU.
Obviously, that’s not the ideal situation heading into a game versus a top ten team in the country. If we’re being honest, USU is not winning this game. Unless the powers that be decide otherwise, this is a chance to see what USU football may be rather than what it is. The Badgers are 27.5-point favorites and given a 97.5 percent chance of victory according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. If the Aggies do actually win this game, and it is my honest hope that they would, I will literally eat this article.
Given the seemingly insurmountable odds that Utah State faces here, the takeaways from this game will be slightly more difficult to find than just by looking at the final score. There are answers we will be looking for this Friday, though, and they are spread all throughout the team.
First and foremost, what will this revamped offense look like? Last year’s offense was, in short, not very good. OC Yost’s offense is supposed to remedy some of those ailments from one year ago, but how much? We’ve heard all camp about how Yost’s offense is predicated off down-field throws and utilizing empty space, yet QB Kent Myers’ completion percentage has dropped in each of the past two seasons. Will this offense be able to move the ball against a defense that allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game in 2016? Any resemblance of success could possibly indicate greater success as the season goes on.
Will Myers’ accuracy even be allowed to prove itself in the first place? Again, this is an entirely new offensive line after USU allowed 2.5 sacks per game last year. If that unit doesn’t improve with this new group, USU will be looking at another long season. Myers can be a useful quarterback given the time, but absolutely no one can optimally perform without adequate protections. Furthermore, with no true number one running back, the offensive line will be ever more crucial in creating a sustainable offense.
Even the best offenses need a good defense to give them the ball. Vice versa, even the best defenses need a good offense to allow them to rest on the sidelines. Both sides of the ball will need to click for the Aggies to even keep this game close. The defense especially will be required a daunting task of stopping an offense that averaged 33.7 points per game at home in 2016. The Aggies held opponents to 5.2 yards per play last season, 33rd best in the country, but that was with several seniors who have since graduated. If this young and unproven front seven can hold its own for several drives against Wisconsin’s running attack, then such would bode well for Mountain West play.
The secondary has been tabbed as the strength of the team, with seniors Jalen Davis and Dallin Leavitt leading the group, but the unit won’t be fully tested against a Wisconsin team that only threw the ball 23 times per game last year. They will, however, need to showcase a greater ability to communicate. Freshman Ja’Marcus Ingram and junior Aaron Wade will be making their first starts at Camp Randall Stadium. Will they be able to avoid any communication errors that result in large gains? Their ability to do so versus Wisconsin probably won’t determine the game, but it may determine the level of confidence the secondary has for the first half of the season.
Lastly, will we be able to trust the special teams unit this season? In 2012, special teams was the downfall of Utah State’s upset bid at Wisconsin, allowing a punt return for a touchdown and missing a last-second field goal in a 16-14 heartbreaker. Will Domink Eberle become the solid placekicker USU has been searching for over the past few seasons? Will punter Aaron Dalton return to his 2015 form or was 2016 more indicative of his abilities? Was the coverage team mainly to blame for his struggles? Special teams has almost always been a question mark for Aggie football, but it appears this year has presented with an innumerable amount.
Utah State plays at Wisconsin on Friday night. Realistically, they will probably lose. Even so, we have many questions. We will finally get some answers.