LOGAN – Asking why Utah State lost to— not only lost, but was blown out by — Weber State is akin to trying to solve the “problem of evil.” Short of consulting the divine, you’re probably never going to receive a concrete or satisfactory answer.
This is the kind of game that breaks football teams. And with the crowd booing during the game, head coach Blake Anderson clapping back at those booing, the booing fans shooting back at Anderson, and the fans taking shots at each other over those boos, there’s more threatening to break this team apart than just what happened on the field. Nobody is happy with the current arrangement of things. Utah State and its fans expected a title defense season. What everyone’s got is historic losses back-to-back.
At the end of the day with this loss, there’s only one thing to do: take a long, hard look in the mirror, harbor no delusions about who and what the team is right now, work together on a solution, set and chase goals with as much energy as possible.
So, let’s look at what this team is after three weeks of the 2022 season.
One of the things that’s become eminently obvious is just how much Utah State misses the presence of Deven Thompkins. Losing Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright hurt, too, but it seems pretty clear just how much Thompkins really changed the offense and opened up things for everyone else. Logan Bonner just isn’t the same quarterback without the man who took the top off the defense every week. You can see it in his numbers.
Before 2021, Bonner’s career completion percentage on throws that travelled 20-plus yards was 21.9 percent. In 2021 that skyrocketed to 37.0 percent. Expand the sample size to throws that travel 10-plus yards downfield and we see a jump from 37.9 percent pre-2021 all the way to 51.4 percent for the 2021 season.
In 2022, we’re seeing a regression to the mean in a big way. Bonner is back down to a 36.4 completion percentage on throws travelling 10-plus yards, right in line with his pre-2021 number. Receivers aren’t getting open right now and this week’s loss showed just how disastrous that fact is. Heck, even when they are getting open, drops are happening all over the place. Here’s a vintage 2021 sideline throw from Bonner right into the window where Brian Cobbs is and it’s a drop, Cobbs just muffs the catch.
The drop rate of Bonner’s receivers hovered around 10 percent for his career at Arkansas State. That dropped to 6.7 in 2021 but now it’s up to 12.5 this season, dang near double last year. Miscommunications are also plaguing the Aggies. Against UConn, there were two straight incompletions as a result of receiver and quarterback not knowing what the other was planning.
First, Bonner throws deep, thinking since there’s just 16 seconds left, go for the touchdown. But Cobbs pulls up right at the first down line since the CB covering him bailed to sell out on covering just the throw Bonner wound up throwing. And so the ball sails all alone into the blue end zone turf.
The very next play the opposite problem happened. Van Leeuwen flew to the end zone, and had his man pretty much beat (hard to see on this video angle) but Bonner throws the ball to the sticks.
Stack the issues from the wide receivers and Bonner’s own mistakes, and we’re left with a Utah State that can’t pass the ball. No ability to pass the ball puts too much pressure on a run game that’s never been that successful in Logan during Anderson’s tenure. The offensive line is getting no push and are opening no gaps. Moreover, consistent read-option looks in the run game are hampering Calvin Tyler Jr’s runs since no defense is taking the threat of Bonner pulling the ball seriously.
Here’s one play that exemplifies many of the too-many issues currently facing the O-line. Though, firstly, it’s worth pointing out this is a run on 3rd and long, an increasingly common trend that’s beginning to grate on fan’s nerves.
Right off the bat you can see that the slight delay of getting the ball to Tyler is giving the Weber State defensive end, Kalisi Moli, an extra step in catching Tyler. Moli is unblocked by design, but the point of the read-option look from Bonner is it’s supposed to force Moli to make the tough choice between the QB running and the RB getting the ball behind an O-line that outnumbers the remaining players in the box. That doesn’t happen because Moli immediately goes for Tyler without any hesitation and won’t be punished with a Bonner run.
Even if that exchange had gone as planned we see on the left side Alfred Edwards whiffing his block against the other defensive end. This forces the pulling Chandler Dolphin, who’s supposed to be turning upfield to take out a linebacker, to chip Edwards’ man. That leaves the Wildcats’ linebacker, Winston Reid, wide open to make the tackle, which he didn’t even really have to do since Moli already had Tyler wrapped up by the legs.
There isn’t enough space in one article to show enough examples of the O-line not creating gaps or even times where running backs missed cut-back lanes. Right now, the run game is not working due to poor O-line play and poor scheming.
Defensively there are plenty of problems, though not as many as the offense. Too many times the front seven is failing to stay gap-sound, with multiple linebackers trying to fill the same gap or guys failing to keep contain. Let’s have an example.
Here, we have a play where the Wildcats have eight blockers lined up. The Aggies wisely have basically nine guys in or very near the box. The only problem is linebackers AJ Vongphachanh and MJ Tafisi both rush the same right side A gap. The result is five USU defenders being blocked by four WSU linemen. And when Damon Bankston cuts back to the left, WSU has a 5-on-4 advantage in blockers and Bankston uses it with predictable results.
After the UConn game, Anderson talked about some of his guys being “overeager” in run defense. That play was that statement in action. Sometimes that overeager play manages to create good things, but it can burn the defense. And to be fair to the defenders, sometimes defensive plays are designed to overload gaps. But whatever the case is, too many times the Aggies are getting burned by cutbacks where the running backs find space left by the D.
Related to the issue of gap-sound defense is Utah State’s undisciplined pass-rushing, i.e. letting the quarterback escape pressure and then scramble away for oodles of yards because no one is left to tackle him. Remember how Bryce Young rushed for 100 yards against the Aggies? He did that all on pass plays where he simply scrambled away from the pass rush into open space left by the defense.
Bronson Barron is not the athlete Young is, but he still took advantage of the Aggies on multiple occasions. Here’s one, and watch how all of USU’s rushers wind up pushing toward the right side of the offensive formation. It leaves the left side completely open for a 10-yard scramble
These are back-breaking plays to let happen and they extend drives, leaving the defense out much longer than necessary. They get tired, lose morale, and that leads to extra scoring for the other team.
What we’ve seen from Utah State through three weeks is a failure on both sides of the ball in almost every way. The offense can’t pass and can’t run. The defense is too inconsistent in stopping the run and can’t mount an effective pass rush. Are there positives? Yes. The defense is forcing turnovers at a tremendous rate, tied for third in the NCAA with six interceptions and tied for 12th in the country with seven overall turnovers forced. And the defense is forcing nearly eight tackles for loss per game, tied for 27th in FBS. What’s missing on defense is consistency (and help from the offense).
Are there positives on offense? Well…not really. You can’t go scoreless in two straight weeks, including to an FCS opponent, and find any real positives. But where substance isn’t present there is hope. There’s talent hidden in the offense somewhere. Anderson didn’t pick these kids off the street. So if the offense puts its mind to improving, we’ll see points scored. Eventually.
A final note to this is that the season isn’t over here. The Aggies won’t go 1-11. Last year, USU had back-to-back games where it struggled on offense in one way or another — scoring three points vs Boise State and then a season-low yards total against BYU. They bounced back from that to win eight of their next nine games. Will that happen this year? Doubtful. But the doom and gloom shouldn’t be exaggerated. Goals of a repeat Mountain West championship may be a little too optimistic, but a bowl appearance and win is still very possible. The problems the Aggies are facing can be fixed with better scheming and more disciplined play from the athletes. But those changes won’t happen on accident.
An early season bye week couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.