LOGAN — Utah State took a few beatings in its 39-21 loss to Air Force last Friday, but are aiming for a rebound against a rising star among G5 times in James Madison. The Aggies got an extra day of rest thanks to playing on Friday, but have a lot more to work on as a 1-2 team going up against a 3-0 squad.
Kickoff (Friday): 6 p.m. Mountain Time
Location: Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium (Logan, UT)
KVNU Aggie GameDay with Al Lewis: 4:10 – 5:45 p.m.
KVNU Aggie Call with Al Lewis: immediately after Coach Anderson’s post-game comments
TV Broadcast: KJZZ | Mountain West Network
Radio Broadcast: KVNU (102.1 FM, 610 AM) in Logan; KVNU (98.3) in Tremonton; KVNU (93.5) in Garden City; KZNS (97.5 FM, 1280 AM) in Salt Lake City; KRPX (102.7 FM) in Green River, Utah; KRPX (100.3 FM) in Moab; KRPX (95.9 FM) in Orangeville; KRPX (95.3 FM) in Price; KVSI (1450 AM/104.5 FM) in Montpelier, Idaho.
- (TE) Josh Sterzer – OUT
- (RB) Robert Briggs – Probable
- (RB) Davon Booth – Probable
- (S) Anthony Switzer – Probable
- (K) William Testa – Probable
- (S) Ike Larsen – Questionable
The Aggies were down two of its three main running backs by the end of the Air Force game. Robert Briggs, who was banged up during the Idaho State game, didn’t even play while Davon Booth left the Air Force game late in the second quarter after a big collision with a Falcons defensive back. Anderson expressed confidence that both could play this week and it’s likely that both will be major factors in Saturday’s game. Josh Sterzer remains out for what’s become a longer recovery than initially reported.
While two players are out for the season, Omari Okeke and Max Alford, Anderson has stated that most of the injuries currently impacting the team are “bumps and bruises,” which has generally meant that players could miss games but won’t be out long term. The Aggies’ depth on the defense is being tested with Alford out and Switzer and Larsen nursing minor injuries, but the team is largely healthy.
Aggies starting a new era at QB
Last time out Utah State made a quarterback switch, with head coach Blake Anderson pulling Week 1 and 2022 starter Cooper Legas and inserting true freshman McCae Hillstead into the first-team offense. Saturday will mark the first start for the former Skyridge QB, something Anderson confirmed Monday in his weekly press conference.
Hillstead completed 18 of 27 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns last week against Air Force in roughly three quarters of play (came into the game on the Aggies’ first possession of the second quarter). He led the three scoring drives Utah State had in its 39-21 road loss and had another drive get into the red zone but ended on a turnover on downs. His performance was solid by most accounts, including Anderson.
“What I saw from McCae was quick decisions, working through progressions, making good decisions on things that he’s had reps on,” Anderson said in his Monday press conference. “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.”
Starting true freshman quarterbacks isn’t the rarest thing to happen at Utah State. Last year Bishop Davenport was forced into action due to injuries to the Aggies’ top three signal-callers — Logan Bonner, Legas, and Levi Williams — starting one game and appearing in two others with the first team. Three other times since 2011 Utah State has started a true freshman. Chuckie Keeton started eight games in 2011 as a true freshman. Darell Garretson stepped in for Keeton in 2013, starting seven games as a true freshman. And in 2014, the true freshman Kent Myers had to step in for an injured Garretson and started five games.
James Madison is the best stopping the run and getting to the QB
Maybe this isn’t the best game for a true freshman that, by Anderson’s own admission, struggled to identify pass rushes against Air Force. James Madison is currently one of the leaders in collegiate football, ranking sixth in sacks with 4.3 per game.
Anderson said it plainly himself by calling the Dukes “one of the best teams at getting to the quarterback of anybody in the country right now” and laid out some of the principles to making sure they don’t become JMU’s next victim.
“As a play-caller and as a strategy just offensively, we can’t just sit in one spot and make them comfortable,” Anderson said. “Tempo’s gonna have to be part of it. We’ve got to run the ball. We’ve got to move the pocket. We’ve got to screen them. We’ve got to play-action them. We have to quick drop back. We have to keep them off-balance.”
Running the ball isn’t going to be the easiest thing either though, as James Madison is the best in the nation in yards allowed per game (22.7). It’s helped along by those sack numbers, since they count as rush attempts for a loss, but that alone didn’t allow them to hold Troy to negative rushing yards (-12) last week or keep Virginia to just 18 rush yards two weeks ago. The Dukes are a dominant run-stopping team that have allowed just 0.8 yards per rush this season.
Dukes’ secondary a question mark of the team
Although the front seven of James Madison’s defense is rock solid, the back end of their defense hasn’t always been able to capitalize on the pressure generated by the front line. In the last two games, the Dukes have yielded 330 or more yards each time, giving up 333 to Troy and 370 to Virginia.
Some of this is bound to come from forcing teams to be one-sided (like with Troy, the Dukes were probably fine to allow 333 pass yards when Troy’s net yardage was 321) but there have been worries. James Madison’s three opponents have completed 63.2 percent of passes and 9.0 yards per attempt. The pass rush may be capable of shaking USU’s freshman QB, but the secondary may not be the most dangerous Hillstead could face.
Utah State suffering from 1st quarter woes (again)
During Anderson’s tenure the Aggies have struggled with slow starts. In the 30 games since Anderson became the head coach, Utah State has given up nearly twice the points its scored in the first quarter (253-128). Looking just at this season, the Aggies spotted Iowa 14 quick points and then 22 points to Air Force. Frustrating totals since Utah State outscored both teams through the rest of the game (14-10 against Iowa, 21-17 at Air Force). It doesn’t matter, though, that USU outscored both those very good teams in a three-quarter span since football features four quarters.
“We have not played really well in the first quarter and we’re gonna have to do a better job,” Anderson said. “I know we’re inexperienced but we’ve got to grow up and we’ve got to be ready from the opening kick. We can’t wait to the second quarter to start playing.”
In his inaugural 2021 season spotting opposing teams early leads was almost charming and borderline celebrated since the team would almost inevitably rally from nine first quarter deficits it faced throughout the season (five of the double-digit holes). In 2022 and 2023, however, such antics have resulted in too many issues for the team. These squads have lacked the firepower the 2021 team had. Rallies are not as easily managed.
In most games, the most important quarter is the fourth. But for the Aggies, the first quarter is becoming far more important as they’ve been thrown off their game too often by refusing to play well at the start of games.