Photo by Robert K. Scott
LOGAN—Two games stand between the Utah State football team and a spot in the conference championship game.
At 8-2 overall and 5-1 in conference, the Aggies could lose one of those games and still play for the conference championship, but that would mean relying on another team to beat Boise State.
The easiest way to the goal is to simply win the two remaining games.
The first game of the two is this Saturday at 6 p.m. in Logan, and it has a trophy involved. The winner of Saturday night’s clash between USU and Wyoming claims the antique .50 caliber Rocky Mountain Hawken rifle known as the Bridger Rifle.
Wyoming started this football season 4-0, but have since won just one game. That lone win came against Colorado State in the Cowboys’ other rivalry game by a score of 31-17, putting the record at 1-5 in conference and 5-5 overall.
USU is playing for a conference championship, but Wyoming has plenty on the line as well. The Cowboys need one more win to become bowl eligible, and this is the team’s second-to-last chance to get it.
When comparing Wyoming to past opponents, USU head coach Blake Anderson said this team reminds him of Colorado State. Like the Rams, he said, the Cowboys have size on both fronts. He explained that both play a similar, straightforward offensive style of bunching the players up together and pounding the ball forward. After they get in that rhythm, he said, they go for the big play-action shot downfield.
“That’s where you hold your breath,” he said. “If you remember back to Colorado State, they got open a couple of times and just didn’t hit them. It ultimately made a big difference in the final score of the game.”
That offense is led by quarterback Levi Williams. At 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds, the sophomore quarterback has the ability to both throw and run, Anderson said, which just creates extra work for the defense to keep him in check. That concerns Anderson because it takes one defender away from running back Xazavian Valladay. Valladay is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“He runs physical,” Anderson said, “and he’s got speed to get to the endzone if you don’t do a great job of maintaining leverage on him.”
Overall, Wyoming’s offense is about as close to balanced as can be. The rushing attack accounts for 54 percent of its yards with the passing accounting the other 46 percent, but at 22 points per game, Wyoming isn’t scoring a whole lot. The team’s strength comes more in keeping the other team from scoring, which is an average of 22.1 points per game.
The biggest standout on the Wyoming defense is linebacker Chad Muma, who has 103 total tackles on the season—32 more than the next tackling leader on his team. Adding to those numbers are Muma’s three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Anderson said he is as good as any other linebacker in the country.
“He runs well,” he said. “He’s a good downhill player. He literally makes plays from sideline to sideline. He appears to be super, super sharp in terms of football IQ.”
Like the offense, Wyoming’s defense is balanced in what it allows. The Cowboys give up 168.2 yards per game on the ground and 162.6 through the air.
With just Wyoming and a game at New Mexico the following week, USU players know their odds at a conference championship are as good as they’ve ever been. All this comes after a one-win season a year ago and being picked near the bottom of the conference in preseason polls. The wins haven’t come easy, either. USU has trailed by double-digits in nearly every game it has played. Junior offensive lineman Quazzel White said that keeping composure despite the adversity just shows who this team is as a group, but he also knows they aren’t done yet.
“We never give up,” he said. “We always keep fighting, and that is what I love about this group so much. We’ve gone through a lot of things, a lot of adversity, and you never really see it come melting down.”
Anderson said the most significant injury from last week is offensive lineman Jacob South. He said South is currently day-to-day, but if he isn’t able to go, backup Cole Motes has been playing very well.
“We have to prepare to play without him and hope we get him back,” he said. “Everybody else looks like they are fine, but it is going to come down to a game-time decision for him.”
Saturday night will be Senior Night for Utah State. Unless the Aggies end up hosting the conference championship game it will be the final time that many of the players take Merlin Olsen Field. Sixteen seniors are set to be honored during the game.
“I would love to see them have a great day,” Anderson said. “They are going to remember Saturday, one way or the other, for the rest of their lives. You remember that last game of your life, you just do.”