Aggies walked the talk of improvement in win over Air Force – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN – There are a lot of teams that, like this year’s Utah State football team, face a tipping point in a season. On one side, there’s the prospect of a losing season, the kind that fans force themselves to forget and try to move on from. On the flip side, a comeback season, featuring a total reversal of fortune and ultimately some measure of success.

Plenty of teams have managed the latter. The 2021-22 Boston Celtics started the year 18-21, a losing record almost halfway through the season, but flipped the script to make the NBA Finals. The Baltimore Ravens of 2000 didn’t score a touchdown for three straight weeks during their season and were 5-4 through Week 9. Those Ravens went on to win 11 straight games, including the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Utah State football has even seen a drastic turn of fortune mid-season. In 1993 the Aggies began the year 1-5, but won the last five games of their regular season to make the first bowl game the program had been to in 32 years (they also won that bowl game, marking the first postseason win in program history).

But not all teams manage that turnaround. The New York Knicks of 2021-22 had a slightly better record than the Celtics did through 39 games (19-20) but finished 11th in the Eastern Conference. And the Kansas City Chiefs of 2000 also had a 5-4 record as the Ravens had. Only the Chiefs finished 7-9, missing the playoffs entirely.

Right now, Utah State is beginning to look like a team that’s on the road to being more like the 2021-22 Celtics, the 2000 Ravens or, perhaps more accurately, the 1993 Aggies. There’s no national championship or even playoff appearance in sight for this year’s Aggies. But the every-year goals of a bowl game and Mountain West title game appearance remain a possibility. And the comeback story would be one for the ages.

The interesting thing about comparing teams that do and don’t make the in-season turnaround is that you often hear the same talking points from press conferences during the tough early stretch. Clichés about “figuring things out” and “looking ourselves in the mirror” and “holding ourselves accountable” are common enough to make a bingo card out of them. At some point though, the clichés have to be left behind and real results have to be earned, not spoken about.

And that’s exactly what Utah State started on Saturday.

The Aggies emerged from behind the pile of talk about how they were improving and the progress they were making to finally do something about that 1-4 record. Utah State was dead last in turnovers in FBS. What did they do? They had effectively no impactful turnovers. No ball ever escaped a ball-carrier’s hands, and Legas’ one interception occurred on a deep throw with eight seconds left in the first half. USU were averaging 3.3 yards per rush attempt in the four-game losing streak, emblematic of poor run blocking and less-than-inspiring rushing form the running backs. Against Air Force, USU averaged 5.2 yards per rush attempt, the second-highest rate in the Aggies’ last 16 games.

For kicks and giggles, let’s see a small example of the change in execution that had to happen for the run game to take a step forward. Here’s a randomly chosen run play from the UNLV loss. It’s 2nd & 10, fairly deep in the red zone. The Aggies have six blockers against a five-man box, should be able to get 4-5 yards and set up a makeable third down right?

Nope. Just a nice gain of 1.5 yards (officially two yards). No one on the line got a push, no hole was created. The tight end pulled to nowhere and blocked a guy who Alfred Edwards already had a solid block on. So Pailate Makakona has nowhere to run and despite impressively shedding one tackler, there are several more to take him down for a clean run stuff.

Here’s a not-quite-as-random play from Saturday. It’s 2nd & 5 and hey, another five-man box, though the Aggies only have five blockers so how will this go?

Much, much better. It’s a seven-yard gain and a first down. And the thing is, the Aggies only blocked four players on this run. In the above mess of a run there were six UNLV defenders mired in the middle of the play. There are two unblocked Air Force linebackers that Tyler had to deal with. The difference is that the O-line moved the D-line and created a lane. And a solid burst of speed and strong running by Tyler ensured he got the necessary yards.

The players weren’t the only ones to step up their game. The coaching staff stepped things up as well. A week after running the ball nine times out of 10 third/fourth and short situations, offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker mixed things up, for better or worse.

Utah State only faced five third/fourth and short situations on Saturday and was successful on three of them (two of those plays overlap, one being a 3rd & 1 that was a failed conversion only for the ensuing 4th & 1 to be converted, so in a way three out of four were successful). The Aggies also completely reversed last week’s trend by throwing on every single one of those short yardage plays.

The longest play was a nifty, but certainly aggressive, deep pass on play-action. The play-action made all seven Air Force defenders close to the O-line bite and it left Cobbs one-on-one and he beat the corner for one of his better catches of the day on one of Legas’ better throws of the day.

Cobbs made a huge conversion on a 4th & 1. Utah State again isolated him on the outside by putting every other eligible receiver on the left side of the formation to keep all 10 other defenders away from the space the Aggies wanted to use to get the ball to Cobbs.

It should also be noted just how impressive this play was from Cobbs. The corner was shaded inside, giving him leverage against just the kind of route Cobbs was about to run, but he still powered through and made a highly contested catch. These kinds of wins one-on-one that Cobbs made here and on the earlier 3rd & 1 are a major key to making this offense work like it has the last few weeks.

By far the most ballsy call of the night was the shovel pass on 4th & 4 that resulted in a 34-yard touchdown for Terrell Vaughn. Part of what was great about the play-call from the Aggies is that the start of the play looked very similar to a play from earlier in the game which the Falcons snuffed out for a five-yard loss.

There are several reasons the initial option play failed which aren’t that important to go into right now. What is important is that Air Force has seen this look and were probably looking for it in the future. It set up a perfect counter at a great moment of need.

The blocking looks the same from the snap, Legas and Tyler give all the appearance of the option and the defense buys it hook, line and sinker. The key here is the linebacker TD Blackmon (#27) who is waiting for the pitch to Tyler so he can close in for the tackle. His anticipation pulls him out of position to tackle Vaughn when the ball winds up in his hands instead. Yes, Blackmon does touch Vaughn, but even if that shoestring tackle worked, Vaughn probably still falls forward over the line to gain and the play would still have been a success.

Aside from Vaughn breaking a desperate tackle, the thing that seals this as a touchdown was the perfect blocking. Right tackle Jacob South hinged two different defenders on the backside, keeping them from being able to make a tackle. Weylin Lapuaho, Alfred Edwards, and Chandler Dolphin all get upfield to sweep away linebackers to form a perfect cutback lane. And not to be forgotten is Falepule Alo who (with a little help from Edwards) stonewalled his man for the most crucial block in the whole play design.

The improvements from both players and coaching staff are what led to Saturday’s win and the retention of hope in Logan. There’s a long road ahead, but this was a good first step on that road. The key now will be to focus on how they got to this point to get to the turnaround win. Anderson said this win “validated” all of the work the team’s been doing and the approach they’ve taken all year that they’ve stuck to through thick and thin. The 2021 champion Aggies stuck to their process. We’ll see how well the 2022 version does that after getting this small taste of success.

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