LOGAN — Utah State is reeling a tad after falling to 1-3 on the season after a roller-coaster loss to James Madison. The Aggies have faced a rather tough schedule, but will now take on a winless UConn team in a cross-country road trip. This game will close the book on USU’s 2023 non-conference games.
Kickoff (Friday): 10 a.m. Mountain Time
Location: Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field (East Hartford, CT)
KVNU Aggie GameDay with Al Lewis: 8:10 – 9:45 a.m.
KVNU Aggie Call with Al Lewis: Immediately after Coach Anderson’s post-game comments
TV Broadcast: CBS Sports 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.
- (DT) Poukesi Vakuata – Questionable
- (LB) MJ Tafisi – Questionable
- (LB) Bronson Olevao – Questionable
- (OL) Ralph Frias – Questionable
- (RB) Robert Briggs – Probable
- (TE) Josh Sterzer – OUT
- Players Out For Season – (S) Omari Okeke, (LB) Max Alford
The Aggies could be down three linebackers this upcoming week. USU head coach Blake Anderson didn’t provide much of an update when asked about the health of his linebackers. Max Alford is out for the year, having gone down on the first play of the year. Bronson Olevao played significant time in the first two weeks, but has been banged up and played only two snaps the last two weeks and missing the Air Force game entirely. MJ Tafisi left last week’s game with an injury and did not return.
Poukesi Vakuata did not play against James Madison after logging snaps in all three of USU’s other games. Ralph Frias left last Saturday’s game after being helped off the field and did not return, but he also went down against Idaho State and then returned the following game at Air Force so time will tell how serious Frias’ injury was. Robert Briggs left the game against the Dukes with an ankle injury that doesn’t appear to be too serious, but he did not play after leaving the game. Josh Sterzer remains out, though his new projected return of early October is drawing near.
Familiar foe from last year
The Aggies don’t have a long history with UConn, having only played the Huskies twice in football, but they do have recent history. Last year USU and UConn faced off in a “Week 0” contest at Merlin Olsen Field that served as both team’s season opener and the Aggies’ home opener. Utah State won the game 31-20, but had to rally from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit and did so thanks to a 24-point second quarter.
Briggs, USU’s current starting running back, made his Aggie debut in that game and set a school record for most rushing yards in a true freshman debut. He ran for 85 yards on 10 carries and his first career touchdown, a 23-yard run. Ike Larsen also played his first significant snaps and recorded his first career interception.
Most of Utah State’s top contributors from last year’s game are no longer with the team or part of the two-deep depth chart. Of the top 10 players in snaps for USU in last year’s game, only Wade Meacham and Michael Anyanwu are expected to see extended time this Saturday.
For UConn, there will be a few familiar faces. Star linebacker Jackson Mitchell, a 2023 Butkus Award semifinalist, led all players last year with 16 tackles and also had a sack, TFL, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. The Huskies’ starting quarterback, Ta’Quan Roberson, also started against the Aggies last year but suffered a season-ending injury early in the game. Zion Turner played the remaining snaps at quarterback and is also UConn’s backup in this game.
Aggies still trying to find a way to start fast
For a team built around speed and tempo, it’s almost ironic that the team can’t begin games fast, metaphorically speaking. The Aggies have scored zero first-quarter points against FBS teams, which ties them with 10 other teams that have also failed to score in the opening frame against FBS opponents.
It’s a puzzle Anderson and his staff are going to be spending a lot of time trying to solve in the upcoming weeks.
“We have been doing very similar things for years and had different results than what we’re getting. But we’re clearly not playing well, early,” Anderson said. “We’re putting our heads together as a staff about how to settle this group down and get better execution out of them early in the game so we can win.”
UConn haven’t been particularly special or awful in the first quarter. Every team they’ve faced has scored exactly one touchdown in the first quarter (28 total points allowed) while the Huskies have scored 10 points (touchdown against NC State and a field goal against Florida International).
UConn also looking for answers
Utah State has its own issues, being a 1-3 team with no wins against FBS opponents, but UConn can’t boast a win over anyone this season and it’s not made things easy on head coach Jim Mora Jr. It’s not the end of the world for the Huskies, though, and there is likely some solace in the fact that the team started last season 1-4 and turned things around to make it to a bowl game for the first time since 2015.
Mora, for his part, seems to like what he’s seeing from the team effort-wise, even though it’s not always translated to results.
“I’ve been a part of really good teams and a part of really bad teams and a part of teams that were descending and a part of teams ascending,” Mora said. “You get a feel. And even though we’re sitting here at 0-4, my innate feeling based upon my experiences in this profession tell me that we’re still doing the right things. We’ve just got to do them better.”
Utah State’s passing game taking off behind new QB and great WRs
Last week the Aggies had their first 400-yard passing game since 2021 with freshman quarterback McCae Hillstead throwing for a USU freshman record 399 yards and four touchdowns. Hillstead has 619 passing yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions through one start and partial games played against Air Force (three quarters) and Idaho State (fourth quarter only). His teammates have taken note of his great play.
“He played amazing,” USU running back Davon Booth said following the James Madison game. “Since Air Force I realized he can ball. This was my first full game with him and I realized, he could do everything Coop could do. So we’ve just got to keep his confidence up and right now he’s doing pretty good.”
Utah State’s wide receiver corps have been a big part in Hillstead’s fast start. Senior wide receiver Terrell Vaughn is currently second in the nation in total receptions (38), tied for first in receiving touchdowns (six) and T-31st in receiving yards per game (86.8).
“At times the ball is not even really designed to go where (Vaughn) is at, but based on how we play in our splits and our spacing he’s still able to get himself open and be a target for us,” Anderson said. “We’re not trying to push the ball to him every snap. Good players get open. Quarterbacks has confidence in him. The matchup’s a problem for people because of where he plays and how we move him around. I’ve been super-pleased with him.”
Even aside from Vaughn, the Aggies have a talented receiver room. Jalen Royals is second on the Aggies in receptions (19) and yards (197). Hillstead has also developed connections with Micah Davis and Colby Bowman, having thrown a 63-yard touchdown to Bowman and a 76-yard TD to Davis.
Huskies’ physicality a challenge for Aggies
Seemingly every week Anderson has said his team would be at a physical disadvantage, the one exception being the Idaho State game. This week will not provide another exception as Anderson says the Huskies will have an advantage in size and physicality. But Anderson says his team will have a speed advantage.
“Just a big, big long physical football team,” Anderson said of UConn. “I think our quickness and speed will be an advantage but size is going to be in their favor. It’s the exact same conversation we’ve just been having. We’re going to have to match up to their physicality early, use our speed and quickness to frustrate them. Try to minimize some of those mismatches and hopefully play with tempo and speed and fatigue them.”
In a story that would sound all-too-familiar to an Aggie fan this year, Utah State lost the battle of physicality early in the 2022 matchup between these two teams. One consequence of that was UConn rushing for 152 yards in the first quarter alone, out of its eventual 245 rushing yards. Nate Carter, who ended the game with 190 rush yards, had 110 in the opening quarter.
UConn also have four of its five offensive line starters from last year back with this team, providing experience in blocking for the stable of running backs. Carter is not among the returners but the Huskies have two running backs, Devontae Houston and Victor Rosa, that have been a solid duo so far this season. The two have combined for 379 rushing yards with an average of 4.99 yards per carry.