Why McCae Hillstead is now the starting QB, and the one play USU couldn’t stop – Cache Valley Daily

After a week of hype following a historically dominant performance against Idaho State, Utah State’s self-image took a major hit with its 39-21 defeat to Air Force. The Aggies were never really competitive, not scoring until they were already down 29-0.

The biggest takeaway of Friday’s game though wasn’t Air Force’s dominance or even quick start. It was the substitution made at the 11:11 mark of the second quarter. Head coach Blake Anderson opted to bench Cooper Legas in favor of true freshman McCae Hillstead. The decision was puzzling on the outside but in hindsight the benching of Legas seems like it was long in the making.

“It’s been under consideration since day one of fall camp,” Anderson said of swapping Legas for Hillstead. “Every day the evaluating how we were, how Coop was progressing, how McCae was progressing, Levi (Williams) how he was progressing. How they played last week (against Idaho State) when they got their snaps. What our practices were like every day. I wanted to give Coop every opportunity to settle in and just get into a confident place and get to a point where he’d pull the trigger when he saw something that he knew was real and could see his reads and progressions. And just didn’t see that happen. Didn’t see it a lot against Iowa. Last week really wasn’t challenged quite the same but did some good things. But this week, unwillingness to pull the trigger in a couple situations. Misreads for the turnover. Just felt like it was time to move on.”

Anderson wants a quarterback who will go out and make the throws when they’re there and in his opinion Legas hasn’t been that quarterback.

The thing with Legas is that he’s been very good at identifying the right passes, reading defenses and (usually) not making stupid passes. The issue has generally come on where he’s gone with his throws. Here are clips of a couple of examples. The one on the left here is one we looked at a few weeks ago after the loss to Iowa, a throw Legas said was one he “babied” and didn’t put it far enough upfield. The one on the right is a pass from last year against San Jose State which is remarkably similar in what went wrong.

Again, the problem with these throws isn’t the read. Both times the receiver was open for a potentially big gain or even a long touchdown. It’s just in both cases, Legas wasn’t aggressive enough in putting the ball where it needed to be. In these cases, it resulted in the worst-case scenario: an interception. But many other mere incompletions have resulted from similar issues.

Both of Legas’ turnovers against Air Force showcased some of the weaknesses that were supposed to begin to fade from his game this year. On Legas’ fumble in the first quarter Anderson said he was “late getting the ball out…the ball should have been out much earlier. Looking at the film, you can see the hesitance from Legas in the pocket (though not exactly what he was looking at since none of the TV angles show us what the situation was like downfield). Utah State was running a flood concept to the near side and, depending on how Air Force’s defense responded, either Terrell Vaughn or Jalen Royals should have at least had a window to throw into. Legas hesitated and that led him to cough up the ball on a strip sack.

Anderson specified two other plays he wasn’t particularly happy about. One a third down throw to Jalen Royals that sailed over his head and, of course, the interception Legas threw. Here’s those two throws side-by-side, the one on the left is the interception, the one on the right the incomplete to Royals.

“The ball that was floated down the middle was not a confident throw. It should’ve been picked off. We’re lucky it hit the turf,” Anderson said. “The interception was not very confident, poor decision, based off a look that he’d seen a million times.”

As much as one can poke holes in Legas’ game, turning the ball over isn’t something that’s led Anderson to bench his quarterback in the past, at least at Utah State. Logan Bonner threw 12 interceptions in 2021. Plenty of those were bad, ill-advised throws that were as bad or worse as anything Legas has done. In 2022 Bonner was far worse than in 2021, throwing eight interceptions across two games. And presumably the only reason he went to the bench was his season-ending injury.

But Bonner was a gunslinger who wasn’t afraid to make any pass. His gains far outweighed the negatives of a few interceptions, which shows in his stats as he threw three times as many touchdowns between 2020 and 2021 as he did interceptions (54 to 18). Anderson repeatedly brought up the confidence Legas seems to be lacking right now. He said he felt Legas was “indecisive and fidgety in the pocket” and that “for whatever reason, he’s not comfortable in the pocket right now.”

There’s some interesting data regarding “pulling the trigger” and my own characterization of Bonner as a “gunslinger.” At least if you consider willingness and effectiveness in throwing the ball deep to be key aspects of those terms. The below tables are a breakdown of passing depth, as in how each of Legas and Hillstead have performed depending on how far down the field each QB threw a pass. The below tables compare Legas and Hillstead and since I already brought Bonner into all this I’ll throw in his 2021 season in the comparison for good measure.

Logan Bonner (2021)

Stat 10+ Yds 0-9 Yds Behind LOS
On Target % 54.5 80.3 91.7
Yds/Att 11.4 6.3 5.1
% of Att 53.1 28.2 16.7
TD/INT 26/
7/2 3/0

On Target % is not the true completion percentage of the throws as it is meant to account for dropped passes. Data for these tables is from Pro Football Focus

Cooper Legas (2022 & 2023)

Stat 10+ Yds 0-9 Yds Behind LOS
On Target % 47.3 86.9 96.6
Yds/Att 10.0 5.1 4.3
% of Att 41.5 36.7 21.9
TD/INT 12/
0/2 2/0

McCae Hillstead (vs Air Force)

Stat 10+ Yds 0-9 Yds Behind LOS
On Target % 64.2 100.0 100.0
Yds/Att 8.7 7.1 5.5
% of Att 53.8 30.8 15.4
TD/INT 0/0 2/0 1/0

The purpose of this data is to show that, at least in small samples, we can see Hillstead has a bit more gunslinger in him, at least so far and has been on target far more often on throws down the field. More than half of his attempts (53.8) went more than 10 yards downfield, while Legas, in his two seasons, has had only just 41.5 percent of his attempts travel more than 10 yards. Not only that, Hillstead’s longer passes have a much higher completion percentage (64.2 to 47.3).

I’ll emphasize it again, small sample size alert is in full effect. The data on Hillstead shown here is based on 27 total attempts while each of Bonner and Legas’ tables are based on literal hundreds of attempts.

Having now brought Hillstead fully into this, let’s take a look at his performance on Friday.

Hillstead didn’t make much of an impact in his first two drives. His first possession ended in a punt largely because he threw two inaccurate passes (though to his credit he did throw a good 20-yard pass to Jalen Royals that kept the drive from being a three-and-out). And on the Aggies’ second possession with him at the helm they ran the ball most of the way down the field. Hillstead’s two passes on the 11-play drive were both behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, Hillstead’s biggest contribution to the drive was when he scrambled for 18 yards.

After settling in on those first two drives, though, we began to see Hillstead begin to take command of the offense. On his third drive, Hillstead completed 5 of 6 passes for a total of 74 yards (on a 79-yard drive) and also threw his second touchdown of the day.

The passes Hillstead threw on this drive were no small matter, unlike the three swing passes that made up half of his first six attempts. He threw several great passes, perhaps none more impressive than this 24-yard completion to Micah Davis where Hillstead slotted a pass around a linebacker and into a window where Davis could easily catch it but the corner had absolutely no play on the ball.

After starting a shaky 1 for 3, Hillstead went on to complete 17 of his next 24 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Of the seven incompletions, two were drops by the receiver, two were passes thrown away because of the pass rush, one was deflected by a defensive lineman, and just one was simply a bad pass the receiver couldn’t catch.

If nothing else, Hillstead showed a lot of promise. Anderson seemed to think as much on Friday when he said “for as inexperienced as he is, it was pretty darn good.” After looking at the film, Anderson confirmed his first assessment.

“What I saw from McCae was quick decisions, working through progressions, making good decisions on things that he’s had reps on,” Anderson said Monday morning. “Now he missed some things as well. He missed pressures that he should have protected and picked up and read differently. But there were things that honestly I haven’t really had a chance to give him reps of and really teach him through considering he’s only been getting about 20 percent of the reps, at most on a given week maybe 30 percent of the reps. I think that those are things that with reps he will get better at and he’ll have better answers for moving forward. Did not put the ball in harm’s way. He kept his eyes downfield. He made quick decisions. Moved on from one, two to three. Moved the chains with his feet. Was not afraid of the moment. And I think he’ll only get better with the reps he’s going to get as the starter.”

So who starts going forward? well the above quote from Anderson already spilled the beans. It’s Hillstead, and Anderson said it plainly Monday morning when he said Hillstead “will be the starter going into tomorrow’s practice.”

 And there you have it. The McCae Hillstead era has begun in Logan. Probably a full season-and-a-half ahead of schedule.

Let’s shift focus from quarterbacks to defense, because a large portion of this game was decided not by who was behind center for Utah State, but by Air Force’s ability to move the ball at will.

Utah State’s gameplan against Air Force this year and last involved a formation the Aggies usually don’t break out against most teams. They shift their base 4-2-5 defense into what looks more like a classic 3-4. For reference, here’s the typical 4-2-5 look.

Four down linemen with two defensive ends and two defensive tackles. The DEs line up outside the offensive tackle (or tight end) with the strong-side DT playing in a 3-technique (between tackle and guard) with the weakside DT in a 1-technique (between center and guard). The five defensive backs, sometimes including the SAM (the hybrid linebacker/safety position in Joe Cauthen’s defense) then line up accordingly.

Now here’s a look at the pseudo 3-4 look the Aggies presented Air Force with.

In this look, the hybrid linebacker/safety, the SAM, moves to play effectively outside linebacker (on this play it’s Jaiden Francois, on other plays it was Anthony Switzer), on the rest of the defensive line shifts over. The defensive end on the SAM side shifts into a 3-technique, pushing the 3-technique DT into playing directly over center, the 1-technique DT then moves into a 3-technique on the strong side and the strong-side defensive end effectively becomes a standup edge rusher, akin to a 3-4 outside linebacker.

It’s not like Utah State won’t show looks like this against other teams. They did it against the run-heavy Hawkeyes a few times and it’ll crop up again here and there throughout the season on occasion. It’s not a radical shift. What’s different is that this is essentially the base defense against the Falcons. Out of 40 snaps throughout the first half and Air Force’s first drive of the second half — i.e. the span until the Falcons had all 39 of their points for the night — Utah State showed this five-man front 30 times (the 40 snaps excludes goal-line scenarios and short-yardage third or fourth downs).

This formation has some merit going up against Air Force. Last year its use helped hold the Falcons to 4.8 yards per rush, half a yard below their 2022 season average of 5.3. It makes running the ball right up the gut a very difficult thing to do with three defensive linemen packed into the middle of the formation and two inside linebackers ready to fill any gaps that open up. And even on a day like last Friday that showed up. When Air Force punted for the first time mid-way through the second, it ran three straight dive plays into this five-man front and failed to get a first down.

Where Air Force ate this formation alive was abusing one of the 3-technique defensive tackles to create a lane off the outside hip of the offensive tackle (the C gap) and then send a lead blocker through it. The Falcons’ tackle and guard double-team one of the 3-technique players and the tight end kicks out the player on the edge. The Aggie edge player obliges the block because they’re on contain and can’t try and close the gap without fear of a sweep or option look from the quarterback. The Air Force lead back back then runs up the lane to lead block and chip the linebacker attempting to fill the gap.

Air Force ran this play out of a couple of different looks, but the concept was the same. Double-team the down lineman, kick out the edge, chip the linebacker. Even when Utah State played this somewhat well, the running back could get three or four yards downfield before a real tackle attempt is made on him. And on drives through the early third quarter, every time Air Force ran this play the running back gained three yards before first contact — with one exception, which we’ll look at in a second.

On Air Force’s first drive of the second half, where it essentially sealed the game with a touchdown, the Falcons ran this very play four times in a row to start and on five of their first six plays. It gained 34 total yards (on a 46-yard drive) with an average of 5.7 per play, and none shorter than four yards.

The final time AFA ran it on that opening third quarter drive, Utah State put out its best counter of the night, though it ultimately failed too. The Aggies went all-out with size and stacking each gap by putting six players on the line of scrimmage — four linemen with hands in the turf and with linebacker MJ Tafisi and SAM Anthony Switzer on each edge.

This formation actually confused Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier as he had to look to the sideline for an adjustment to the call. The signal came in and it was the same C-gap run again. Going to the left side would have been suicide since there were no double-team opportunities and plenty of defenders to make the play. The right side, from Air Force’s perspective, looks much more inviting as it’s a lot more typical of the five-man front USU had been showing all day. The secret here is that Switzer’s role in this play was to crash the C-gap hard and eliminate any lane, which he ended up doing admirably. That left Jaiden Francois, situated just behind and to the left of Switzer, with the chance to meet running back Emmanuel Michel just one yard past the line of scrimmage for a stop. But let’s run the tape to see how that went.

This probably stands as the story of the game on defense. Air Force ran plays that Utah State’s scheme and personnel were just not ready to stop. It’s something the defense is not used to going up against and the Aggies’ talent wasn’t capable of winning key matchups against the Falcons’ players. Air Force was simply better and had a scheme to take full advantage of that fact. One can only hope the same won’t be true in future contests.

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