Utah State quarterback Cooper Legas (5) looks to throw the football during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 in Logan, Utah. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)
If you only got one word to describe the Utah State football team under Blake Anderson, there’s only once choice for a descriptor: resilient.
How else could one encapsulate years of consistent comeback victories, refusing to lay down and accept a lost season when many others would have done so in a similar situation, and players being benched only to become heroes down the line?
After Saturday’s win over San Diego State, the most recent example of the Aggies’ resilience, Anderson was asked if resilient was a good way to describe his team.
“I think resilient is a great word,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a very close-knit group of guys that care about each other, care about our coaching staff. We throw the word love around a lot in that building. Player-to-player, player-to-coach, coach-to-player, and I think it shows on the field.”
And of all the players on this football team, the exemplar of Utah State’s resilience has to be its quarterback, Cooper Legas. Twice he’s lost the quarterback battle to McCae Hillstead, first in getting pulled during the Air Force game and then having to return to the bench after having back-to-back 360-yard passing games when Hillstead returned from a concussion. And twice now he’s had to come off the bench to fill in for an injured Hillstead to rescue the Aggies from a first-half deficit, first against UConn and then on Saturday against San Diego State.
But this time Legas isn’t heading back to the bench. Anderson announced earlier today that “his’ll be Coop’s offense to run throughout the remainder of the season.” The quarterback controversy is over. Unless Legas himself gets injured, he’ll play every meaningful QB snap for this team.
Legas actually didn’t learn the news until after Anderson had told the media. The senior QB was slated to speak with the media right after Anderson and as the two switched places, Legas received the news.
“It’s awesome,” Legas said. “I was planning on running (the offense) this whole year and have bene ready to do so. Now it feels good to have it back and I’m ready to keep playing well.”
The decision is one that fans have been clamoring for. Hillstead’s second half against Air Force and then 399 yard performance against James Madison made supporters excited for his future, but recent performances by Hillstead against UConn, San Jose State and San Diego State — which includes the fact that Hillstead has yet to lead the Aggies to a win — led to a desire to see Legas back on the field.
Utah State’s offense has simply performed better lately with Legas leading the offense. Dating back since the UConn game, the Aggies have gained 7.3 yards per play with Legas as the quarterback and just 4.4 yards per play with Hillstead at the helm. Legas’ leadership and rapport with the rest of the offense just seems to make it work better. And that leadership is something Anderson said made the coaching staff labor over the decision to pull Legas the first time.
“One thing we’ve always known about Coop is the man is a great leader,” Anderson said. “And that’s why it was difficult to make the change earlier. We knew we were going to be throwing a freshman out that wasn’t quite there yet. Didn’t want to make the change in the first place.”
Anderson elaborated on his decision in Monday’s press conference emphasizing again that his biggest concern came down to wanting to “control the forced turnovers” from his quarterbacks.
“When Coop takes care of the forced throws, and throws it away (or) checks it down, he’s as good as anybody,” Anderson said. “The juggle between ‘Do we continue to put a freshman out or we put a guy that’s a seasoned veteran that, for whatever reason is having too many unforced errors?’ That’s been difficult since day one.”
It’s worth saying that even though Anderson’s hasn’t exactly made any friends with his decisions over the starting QB job, it’s hard to say he’s been 100 percent wrong with his moves. When Legas was initially benched, he was not playing up to expectations. It’s something that got discussed on a previous edition of the Monday Cooldown. It’s hard to argue that moving to Hillstead wasn’t the objectively correct decision at the time, especially given the early returns from Hillstead’s performances. In essentially 1.5 games, as a true freshman, Hillstead threw for more than 600 yards, a 7 to 3 TD/INT ratio and an 8.1 yards per attempt rate.
It also doesn’t mean that going back to Legas isn’t the correct decision now.
Legas went from being a poorly performing QB (5.1 yards per attempt, only one TD against FBS opponents and two picks plus a lost fumble) to one playing like one of the best QBs in the conference. Since jumping back in against UConn, Legas has thrown 12 touchdowns to four interceptions, passed for 1,121 yards in basically what amounts to three games (which calculates out to about 373.7 yards per game), led two comeback victories, nearly beat Fresno State, and led USU to its largest margin of victory over an FBS team (the 20-point Colorado State win).
Given Legas’ performances between UConn, CSU and FSU, one could argue that Hillstead shouldn’t have returned to the starting lineup against San Jose State or San Diego State, but that’s a discussion that won’t yield much of substance. The Aggies lost to the Spartans for reasons far beyond who was at quarterback, and Legas was able to come in against the Aztecs and help the offense where Hillstead had been struggling.
The fact many of USU struggles have been beyond quarterback is something Anderson seemed to want to emphasize when discussing his decisions at quarterback.
“Most of our problems is just we’ve struggled up front,” Anderson said. “We’re beat up. We’re young and inexperienced. We’ve played against some good front and some very active fronts. And when we’ve been able to cover guys up we’ve been successful. When we haven’t, it’s been a grind. And we’re gonna have to just continue to grow up front, continue to get guys healthy. Continue to develop up front.”
One final note on this is a possible long term side effect, or at least next season side effect.. An impact Anderson may have considered, but cast aside in an effort to win more games this season and not prioritize future seasons over this one. That potential effect is whether Legas may end up transferring away from Utah State for his final season of eligibility. Anderson didn’t shy away from a question implying Legas may consider transferring, emphasizing he’d like to see him return.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, I love the kid, I love the way he works. I love his attitude,” Anderson said. “I’d love to see him come back for another year but that’s gonna be between him and his family. I’m sure they’re as frustrated as they can be with me. They should. That’s their son, they want him out on the field. Hopefully when everybody looks back at this they see that intentions were in the right place. Trying to get the right things out of our team and in Coop.”
Legas was also asked what he may consider doing with his final year of eligibility and the QB said he’d like to finish things up in Logan.
“I’d love to stay with the Aggies,” Legas said. “I’ve been here since 2019. This is my fifth season. I’d love to have my whole career here and just have another good season.”
This probably isn’t the complete end of the quarterback drama, as transfer season could bring surprises. But for a team that needs to be focusing on getting to a bowl game, putting this issue to bed removes a distraction for both the players and the coaches.