“Process-driven” Aggies on right path thanks to an offensive explosion fueled by Legas, Royals – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN – Looking at the result of Friday’s game, the simple conclusion would be Utah State took a step back on the gridiron with its loss to Fresno State. The Aggies had two second-half leads with a chance to ice the game with a defensive stand. They failed at that. And even after failing to stop the Bulldogs’ eventual game-winning drive, USU had a chance at its own game-winning drive that ended with an interception.

And yet head coach Blake Anderson is projecting a fair amount of optimism despite the obvious disappointment in the loss. His demeanor and tone post-game and in this week’s press conference one could easily see his disappointment at the result but where that disappointment is directed is important. Friday night Anderson said his message to the team was that he was “disappointed for you, not in you.”

Something that Anderson mentioned both Friday and Monday is that he’s trying to be “process-driven, not results-driven.” It’s odd to say something like that and also talk about being “1-0 every week” but for Anderson, two things were true on Friday: the Aggies improved, even if it obviously didn’t make the plays they needed to.

“I do think we’ve improved. I thought we played our most complete game,” Anderson said in his Monday press conference. “But at the end of the day — and I said this Friday night — Fresno (State) made plays that they needed to make in critical situations and we just didn’t.”

Looking at those improvements is key to projecting how much Utah State can accomplish at this point. The Aggies aren’t going to be in the race for the Mountain West title. Losses to Air Force and Fresno State have essentially assured that since not only is a two-loss team unlikely to end up in the conference title game, but the Aggies are on the wrong end of a tiebreaker to two of the likeliest teams to be competing for a spot in said title game.

Despite being thoroughly unlikely to land a spot in the title game, the Aggies are still very much in play for a bowl game. And while that has technically been true all year, it didn’t feel nearly as likely a few weeks ago. And the gradual improvement by Utah State is a big reason why there’s a lot greater odds for the team to go bowling against this year

The biggest way in which this team is improved is clearly the offense. As in, the unit is on an absolute tear, gaining 1,207 yards in the last two weeks alone — a number that ranks first among all FBS teams in that time span. To put that in context, USU ranked 44th in yards per game at 427.6 yards per game just two weeks ago and have now jumped to 15th in a mere 14 days.

Two key factors have played into this explosion — improvements in the run game and the breakout of USU’s wide receiver corps.

For the first time since 2021, the Aggies have had back-to-back 200-yard rushing games, going for 252 against Colorado State and then 205 vs Fresno State. The attack is driven by USU’s three-headed dragon running back rotation of Robert Briggs, Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison. Booth has seen the most usage, partly due to being a bit healthier, and leads the crew with 73 attempts for 446 yards and four touchdowns, but Faison has 334 yards and Briggs has himself 247 yards despite missing time with injury. These three have been virtually interchangeable and having three running backs with notable volume and also averaging at least 5.3 yards per carry (that’s the low mark, Faison is at the top at 7.3 per carry) is an immense blessing for the Aggies.

“We all bring different things to the table,” Faison said. “We have a great relationship. We work really well together and I think how coach is using us and rotating us is working perfectly for the team.”

The growth of the wide receivers is personified in the recent jump taken by junior wide receiver Jalen Royals. In his first four games he was a serviceable receiver, ranking second on the team in receptions (19) and yards (197) through those first four weeks. Not bad by any means, but not particularly remarkable. Then Royals just went off. Against UConn he caught more TDs than he had all season (three vs the two he had to that point) and nearly had more yards in that one game than in all four previous outings combined (185). And Royals has hardly slowed down since. Over the last three games he’s had 100+ yards in each outing AND multiple touchdowns in all three.

If you counted just those three games, in which Royals had 450 yards and seven touchdowns, he would still rank second in the Mountain West in receiving touchdowns and have the 10th-most receiving yards. As things stand now, Royals is tied for first in the country in receiving TDs (nine) and ninth in the country in receiving yards (647).

Comparisons of Royals to former USU star wide receiver and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Deven Thompkins, have already been made and it’s no poor comparison. One of the things that made Thompkins such a deadly weapon in USU’s offense was his combination of speed an ability to high-point the ball over defensive backs. Twice we saw Royals do essentially that against Fresno State (though it’s not the only time) with his best very much being his first TD catch of the evening.

Here’s a reminder of what Thompkins used to do here back in 2021. It’s but one example among many so don’t hate me if I didn’t pick your favorite.

Heck, Royals is almost deliberately emulating Thompkins since he decided to replicate one of Thompkins’ most impressive plays of his Aggie career, a 75-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass. Here’s what Thompkins did against North Dakota back in 2021.

Here’s Royals’ version, which was “only” 71 yards to the house against UConn.

The dynamic Thompkins brought in 2021 was sorely missing in 2022. Royals has brought it back in a way that Terrell Vaughn, Brian Cobbs, Micah Davis and Colby Bowman — solid as all those receivers have clearly been with USU — don’t quite bring to the table.

Given what Royals has brought to the Aggies this season, and it’s troubles with consistency at receiver last season, it’s a little hard to believe that Royals is in his second year with this team. He appeared in 12 of the Aggies’ games last season but didn’t record a single stat, even in his first official start at receiver against Boise State. A couple of changes seem to have taken effect. Royals, for one, spoke of his confidence as a receiver growing.

“It definitely has gone up,” Royals said of his confidence. “I think I’m one of the best receivers in this conference and maybe in college football. That’s probably the biggest thing right there.”

Anderson also noted the rise in Royals’ confidence but also spoke of his more technical improvements.

“His move at the line of scrimmage is getting better and better,” Anderson said. “He’s elevating and playing above the rim, which is something that I think doesn’t come naturally to everybody. He’s making competitive  catches at the point of attack with bodies around him. I think he’s a well-rounded player that can do whatever we need him to do.”

Royals has truly become an all-around receiver. He’s not just a one-trick pony with deep routes (though that’s how he’s getting a lot of his touchdowns lately). He’s capable of running the shorter routes and gaining tough yards after the fact. His 71-yard TD from earlier is but one example of that.

One receiver doesn’t make an entire offense, though, and the entire receiving corps has been great, including tight end Broc Lane. Anderson summed it up on Friday, saying “we’re at our best when you have to guard everybody and every inch of the grass” and opponents have had to cover every inch of grass with USU’s receivers.

Of course, a receiving corps is only as good as the quarterback throwing to them and Legas these last few weeks has been stellar. He’s thrown for 360+ yards in two straight games, one of just five Aggie QBs in history to do so and, along with Jordan Love, the only one to do so this century. Account for the fact Legas threw for 204 yards after entering the UConn game in the second half alone and it’s basically three straight weeks he’s been at this high level of production.

A major question hovering over Legas, though, is that true freshman McCae Hillstead, who took the starting job from Legas several weeks ago against Air Force, is likely to return this week from the concussion he suffered against UConn. Can Anderson justify sitting Legas on the bench after his performance these last few weeks? Whether you believe this is more due to Royals’ outbreak or Legas making real improvements it probably doesn’t matter too much because we haven’t seen Hillstead out-perform what Legas did these last two weeks. At times Hillstead was equal to what Legas has now done, but not necessarily better.

Anderson made it clear Friday he wouldn’t publicly say who will start this upcoming week at San Jose State but on Monday did discuss where he was in that process, which includes making sure Hillstead finishes getting out of concussion protocol early enough in the week to get him back to practice.

“Haven’t made a final decision yet,” Anderson said. “I’ve felt like Coop did a really, really good job in McCae’s absence. And he did grow up from some of his earlier issues. Wasn’t without mistakes, and still the decision for me is just what gives us the best chance to be successful moving forward. That’s the ultimate answer is who and what allows us to be the most successful. Still want to continue to analyze it. Haven’t made a final decision. A lot will depend on how McCae’s doing today with the trainers and doctors and is he really progressing at the rate that we need him to before we make a final decision.”

There’s more improvements to be made with this team, including quite a few on defense. But despite a negative result on Friday, the Aggies have made it clear they’re capable of making a bowl game. Beyond that depends on what further improvements are made.

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