Team to Watch - Utah State
August 31, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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It was fair to expect some drop-off last year at Utah State (2013 SU 9-5, ATS 9-5) after program reconstruction wizard Gary Andersen left Logan to succeed Bret Bielema at Wisconsin. After all, 11-2 football seasons happened about as often in the Cache Valley as Jay-Z and Beyonce' stop by for a visit. And the Aggies were going to be upgrading their conference affiliation as they joined the Mountain West after a decade-long stint in the disintegrating WAC.
But no one expected the floor to collapse beneath the Utags, either, as there was some continuity between the regimes of 2012 & '13 thanks to new HC Matt Wells, promoted from offensive coordinator. Some of the Andersen staff, and almost all of the terminology, also remained from 2012. And the roster returned 15 starters from a Potato Bowl-winning side.
What no one, including new HC Wells, was expecting was for star QB Chuckie Keeton, who had generated some fringe Heisman Trophy chatter entering last season, to go down with a knee injury in early October, or for USU to start three different QBs during the season. So when the smoke finally cleared and the Utags had pipped favored Boise State to win the Mountain half of the loop and then upset one-time BCS contender Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl, there was not much discussion about what sort of hands the program was in, post-Andersen. Utag AD Scott Barnes (once upon a time a hoops PF for some of Boyd Grant's better Fresno State teams in the early '80s) was impressed enough with Wells' work to offer his coach a contract extension after the season.
Now, it's time to talk about an encore in 2014. Only this time Wells will have to proceed with less than half as many returning starters (just seven) as he had a year ago. Fortunately for Wells, the electric Keeton is back in the fold. Better yet, just in case Keeton goes down again, Wells has an experienced pilot in reserve in soph Darrell Garretson, who eventually took over the QB chores last season and helped the offense to five single season school records while winning 6 of 7 starts, saving a campaign that was teetering at 3-4 in mid-October.
Which also begs the question how Utah State could nab two such ringers at QB, when other schools west of the Rockies, including several in the higher-profile Pac-12, can't seem to find one capable QB.
But as long as Keeton is fully recovered from his knee injury (which also kept him out of spring drills), he remains the focal point on the attack end. As he should; prior to the knee injury vs. BYU, Chuckie had completed 136 of 198 throws for 1388 YP and 18 TDs, to go along with just two interceptions, after passing for 3373 yards and 27 TDs last and adding another 619 yards and 8 rush TDs during a full season of work in 2012. Just in case Keeton isn't ready, or goes down again, Garretson is available in the bullpen after passing for 1444 yards and 10 TDs in half-a-season's worth of work in 2013.
The offensive returning starter number (three) deceives further when realizing it also doesn't include RB Joe Hill, who was playing with the first string and had gained 252 yards and almost 5 ypc before going down with his own knee injury last September. Hill will be ready in the fall, although Wells and co-o.c.'s Kevin McGiven and Luke Wells are legitimately concerned about Hill's durability, as his 5'11, 190-lb. frame is not designed for heavy-duty work as have been some other recent featured Aggie runners, including muscle-bound Robert Turbin, now a member of the Super Bowl champ Seahawks. Wells also moved some of this better athletes to WR positions in spring, hoping to find a complement for highlight-reel JoJo Nelson, a 5'7, 151-lb. electron who caught 59 passes a year ago and was the only player in the country last season to record multiple TDs via rushing (three), receiving (two), and returns (two punt returns). The kicking game appears in good hands (or feet, we suppose) with sr. PK Nick Diaz, who nailed 17 of 23 FG attempts a year ago.
Where the returning starter angle might cause concern is along the OL, as only one regular (the deceivingly-named LT Kevin Whimpey) returns from 2013. Wells, however, was encouraged with what he saw in spring work. "Our guys are talented," said Wells of his new-look OL. "They're just youthful and inexperienced." Still, MW sources indicate that replacing key C Tyler Larsen (in the Miami Dolphins' camp this summer) could be a tall order.
The real legacy left behind in Logan by Andersen was a defensive monster that was his creation and passed on to new d.c. Todd Orlando a year ago. The Orlando version of the 3-4 "D" posted similar impressive numbers, including top ten national rankings in scoring (7th at 17.1 ppg) and rushing (8th at 107 ypg). The returning starter number (four) for this platoon deceives as well, with several holdovers having rotated in and out of the lineup a year ago.
Still, there are some potential areas of concern, including up front, where DE B.J. Larsen is the only returning starter on the line, and the secondary, which graduated four starters. The D-backs still have an upper-class look about them however, with three seniors in the projected starter mix, with FS Brian Suite the most familiar with live action. The strength of the platoon again figures to be an active LB corps featuring a pair of All-MW selections, OLB Kyler Fackwell and ILB Zach Vigil.
For our purposes, especially noteworthy about the Ags has been their pointspread prowess, with both Andersen and Wells, covering 20 of 27 chances the past two seasons. Being hidden in Cache County is apparently preventing the oddsmakers from placing too much of a premium on this notorious overachiever vs. the number.
The 2014 schedule is fairly intriguing, with an opening game at Tennessee, a rare visit to Logan by an ACC school (Wake Forest), and trips to Arkansas State and BYU. The Utags also trek to Colorado State and Boise in MW Mountain showdowns, but miss what figures to be the top three teams (Fresno, Nevada, and San Diego State) from the Western half of the loop. Anything less than another bowl bid would be a major letdown, and a repeat of last fall's Mountain Division title (which the Utags won in 2013, essentially without Keeton) would come as no surprise.
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