LOGAN — Following a much-needed bye week, Utah State (3-5, 1-3 in MW play) will get back in action this Saturday, travelling to San Diego State (3-5, 1-3) to take on the Aztecs. Both teams are struggling three-win teams aiming for a shot at a bowl game.
Kickoff: 5 p.m. Mountain Time
Location: Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego, CA)
KVNU Aggie GameDay with Al Lewis: 3:10 – 4:45 p.m.
KVNU Aggie Call with Al Lewis: Immediately after Coach Anderson’s post-game comments
TV Broadcast: FS2
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.
- (OL) Falepule Alo – Questionable
- (TE) Josh Sterzer – Questionable
- (LB) Bronson Olevao – Questionable
- Players Out For Season – (S) Omari Okeke, (LB) Max Alford, (WR) Kyle Van Leeuwen, (P) Stephen Kotsanlee
USU head coach Blake Anderson reported a much more optimistic bill of health for the Aggies. Tight end Josh Sterzer and linebacker Bronson Olevao, who’ve been out for several weeks, returned to practice on Sunday. The most limited player this week is center Falepule Alo who has a chance to play this week, but even if he does it could be in a limited role.
Statistical Rank Comparison
|San Diego State
Much-needed rest from bye week
It took eight weeks for Utah State to finally get an off week and it certainly started to show in recent weeks with how beat up and sluggish the Aggies seemed to be. The time off seems to have hit the spot as players are more fresh and ready for the final stretch of the season
“You can tell, fresher legs, bounce in their step that we didn’t have a week or two ago,” Anderson said. “Hopefully we’re gonna get out of (the bye week) what we planned and be sharper, faster, crisper, healthier than we were.”
Defensive end Blaine Spires said that with going so long without a bye week it got to the point that he was feeling the effects “every day in practice” and during every game and would have to just play through it. But now he’s feeling much better after some rest.
“I’m able to move faster. I feel a lot better,” Spires said. “I was able to work on some techniques. Was able to get my feet back together. Just had time to do that. Had time to get away from the game, get my mind clear. Just get reenergized and refocused for this last stretch.”
Looking for answers on defense
Utah State’s defense is struggling mightily this season with several key weaknesses getting exploited, especially in recent weeks. In the Aggies last two road games, they’ve allowed more than 200 rushing yards each time — 218 at UConn and 251 at San Jose State. Anderson mentioned several ways the team struggled, specifically against SJSU, one of which was fatigue.
“Some guys have played a lot of snaps and I thought fatigue set in,” Anderson. “We didn’t chase the ball and really rally to the ball like we had in previous games.”
The bye week should help with that, but Anderson said the conversations with defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen have included trying to simplify the defense. Anderson said inexperience has led to some issues and that they need to simplify things and help “give our guys confidence and let guys really fly to the ball.”
A season-long issue has been physicality. Anderson has repeatedly lamented having mismatches along the offensive and defensive fronts but it’s something they’ve got to find a way to solve if a bowl game is to be in play.
“We’ve got to be more physical up front. We know that,” Anderson said. “That has been something we’ve talked about all year. It’s not going to change overnight so if we know the matchups are not going to be in our favor, how do we create those opportunities. We’ve done it at times this year, either through pressure or through movement or both. And we’ve got to find a a way to do that down the stretch.”
Similarly, USU has been at times incapable of getting opposing offenses off the field on third down. The Aggies rank 108th in third down defense, allowing teams to gain first downs on 44.6 percent of third down plays. Their last two foes, SJSU and Fresno State, converted a combined 18 of 30 (60.0 percent) third downs.
Aggies back to square one with QB battle
Much was made of Anderson’s decision to bench Cooper Legas in favor of McCae Hillstead after the former had performed admirable after his own benching. Not helping matters was the poor performance of Hillstead in his return, completing just 17 of 29 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Those two picks didn’t help his case to start since Anderson’s stated reason for going back to Hillstead was that he supposedly wouldn’t turn the ball over as much as Legas has. At this point, neither QB is protecting the ball the way Anderson wants them to.
“I’ve been really really clear and very open with both that neither are playing at the level that they can,” Anderson said. “The number one goal is to protect the football and that’s what I need to see.”
Anderson said on Monday that Hillstead and Legas got equal reps in their Sunday practice and that, as of Monday, there isn’t a clear starter. That decision will have to come later this week when one or the other proves himself.
“Gave them equal reps (on Sunday). Told them I’m going to continue to watch and see how they’re carrying themselves and responding,” Anderson said. “And we’ll make a decision later in the week.”
Anderson not thinking about bowl eligibility right now
Utah State has made a bowl game in 10 of the last 12 seasons and each of the last two campaigns. If that run is to grow the Aggies must win three of their last four games in which they’ll face SDSU, Nevada, Boise State and New Mexico. That means this week isn’t necessarily a must-win for USU, but the pressure is beginning to mount. But for Anderson, making a bowl game is obviously a preseason goal and the team sets that as a goal, but that’s not the focus this week.
“This particular game there’s a ton hanging on it because it’s the next opportunity and it’s a game that we wanna win. We’ve always talked about being bowl eligible but we don’t talk about it once we get in the season,” Anderson said, later adding that “my only goal is for us to play our best football and the rest will take care of itself. Be process-driven not outcome-driven.”
SDSU going through struggles of their own
This isn’t the San Diego State of years past, such as the one Utah State faced in the 2021 Mountain West Championship Game that was ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll at the time. The Aztecs sit at 10th in the conference standings after entering the season ranked fourth in the preseason poll and garnering one of the first-place votes. Last time out for SDSU, it suffered a humiliating home defeat against Nevada, falling 6-0, the first time the Aztecs had been shut out at home since 1976. It was also the first win for the Wolf Pack in 16 games, a losing streak that dated back to Sept. 3, 2022.
“Believe me. We’re pissed off,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said. “I promise you that. And we should be.”
From a defense that has ranked in the top 35 in points allowed six of the last seven years, San Diego State ranks 85th, allowing more than 28 points per game, the highest points per game allowed by the team since 2013. Without that elite defense, the team’s often lackluster offense is even more glaring. The Aztecs have scored more than 20 points just twice this season — 31 in a loss to Boise State (34-31) and a season-high 41 in a win over Hawaii (41-34).
Aggies to face another running quarterback
San Jose State’s quarterback, Chevan Cordeiro, proved to be a problem for the Aggies with his ability to run with the ball. Cordeiro extended several of the Spartans’ drives and was a source of USU’s inability to get off the field on third downs. This week the Aggies won’t be getting any relief from running quarterbacks as San Diego State’s Jalen Mayden is a prolific runner. He actually leads the team in both total rushing yards (400) and rushing yards per attempt (4.3).
Anderson’s answer to how the Aggies will have to stop Mayden came down to making sure they did the simple things that weren’t being done against guys like Cordeiro and other scrambling QBs the Aggies have faced.
“If you’ve got a spy, the spy has got to be able to get him on the ground. If you’re not going to spy, you’ve got to condense the lanes to where he can’t step through. I know it’s a very generic answer but we’ve got to play technically better,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to make him uncomfortable by attacking the pocket and reducing the lanes, either by putting people in those gaps or have a spy ready to get him on the ground if he does escape. Hopefully make him uncomfortable if those options aren’t available.”