The Utah State Aggies were one of the darlings of the 2012 season, finishing the year with a 11-2 record as winners of the WAC in its final season. On September 21st, the Aggies will visit the Coliseum for the fifth time in their history, while looking for their first win over USC. The Trojans should be on upset alert, while new Utah State head coach Matt Wells will aim for an early signature win.
After a little bit of a lay off, let us now continue our game-by-game preview of the 2013 season, with USC’s Week 4 matchup against USU.
Aggies by the numbers:
2012 Record: 11-2 (6-0, 1st in the WAC)
14 Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Key Returners: QB Chuckie Keeton, C Tyler Larsen, OLB Kyler Fackrell
Key Losses: RB Kerwynn Williams, WR Matt Austin, CB Will Davis
Player to watch: OLB Kyler Fackrell
As a freshman, Fackrell turned a lot of heads on his way to earning the first Freshman All-American honor in school history. The 6-foot-5, 245 pound All-WAC outside linebacker did everything last year, compiling 87 tackles, three interceptions, three sacks and seven hits on opposing quarterbacks.
USU’s 2013 outlook
There’s a reason that Wisconsin cherished Gary Andersen enough to hire him as Bret Bielema’s successor. His Utah State team put on a clinic in 2012, finishing near the top in a host of statistical categories, while closing the book on the WAC with a conference title.
Going into 2013, the Aggies find themselves in an entirely new chapter of their program. They’re now members of the Mountain West Conference and they’ll play under new head coach Matt Wells, who slides over from offensive coordinator. Gone is one of the best running backs in school history, Kerwynn Williams, and All-American cornerback Will Davis.
Given those changes, the likelihood of the Aggies repeating their 11-2 season from 2012 should seem bleak, but in reality, it isn’t.
Not only does Utah State return all five starters on the best offensive line that you’ve never heard of, they have a star-calibre quarterback in Chuckie Keeton, bring back four of their top five tacklers and have a somewhat favorable schedule in their first year in MWC, as they draw Boise State at home.
The biggest hurdle for the Aggies in 2013 is in the backfield, as they must replace Williams at running back, who ran for 1,512 yards as a senior. Joe Hill enters the fall atop the two-deep and while he has just under 300 career rushing yards to his name, the Aggies’ offensive line should create ample opportunities for him and reserves Rashad Hall and Kelvin Lee.
The line features four players who had All-WAC honors a year ago, 110 combined starts and, according to Phil Steele, a size that averages 6-foot-4, 306 pounds. Steele has the Aggies’ line as the 14th best in the country, while center Tyler Larsen is the third ranked center in positional rankings, making the group both talented and full chemistry.
Behind the line is quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who threw for exactly 100 more yards than Matt Barkley last season, while sporting a solid 27 to 9 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and completing more than 67 percent of his passes. Though, despite the strong numbers through the air as a pocket passer and a stout line in front of him to protect him, Keeton’s strength lies outside of the pocket, as he ran for 619 yards in 2012.
Keeton was first team All-WAC last year, and with a line that only gets better and more experienced, his numbers should improve given the potential for a reliance on more of a passing attack without Kerwynn Williams.
Defensively, the Aggies have one of the Mountain West’s most experienced squads, with three of four linebackers in their 3-4 scheme returning, and five of the front seven. Sophomore Kyler Fackrell had a breakout season as a freshman, though inside linebackers Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil are the statistical benefactors of the 3-4 scheme, combining for 214 tackles last year.
Schematically, the Aggies might not be tied to the 3-4 defense for long, as new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando comes in from Florida International. At FIU, Orlando ran a 4-3 defense and somewhat successfully, as the Panthers gave up just 344 yards per game, as recently as 2011.
Should Orlando ultimately decide to implement the 4-3 and depart from the Gary Andersen/Dave Aranda 3-4, the personnel is there to make it happen, as the Aggies have a decent rotation at defensive tackle with starting experience from both A.J. Pataiali’i and Elvis Kamana-Matagi.
Overall, the pieces are there for Utah State to continue their progression as a team on the rise, but it’ll come down to seeing just how influential Gary Andersen was in the win column. The hiring of Matt Wells was a notch in the belt of continuity and there’s plenty of experience to echo that, but will a new conference and new voices lead to different results? We’ll have to wait and see.
Early Prediction: USC 27, Utah State 20
The Trojans will be on upset alert in Week 4 while hosting the Aggies, even despite USU entering the Coliseum with a brand new coach. In the last three years, Utah State has scheduled three games against big programs on the road –Oklahoma, Auburn and Wisconsin– losing all three by a combined 13 points, despite being a combined 74-point underdog. On top of that, the Aggies out-gained all three opponents and would have beaten Big Ten champ Wisconsin last year, if it wasn’t for a missed field goal in the dying seconds. Needless to say, they’re not afraid of playing on a big stage.
As for the matchup, Utah State pits their strength against USC’s strength, with their powerful offensive line going toe-to-toe and into the teeth of the Trojans’ defensive line and stalwarts Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams.
The Aggies will be a precursor to Stanford in terms of what USC will face up front, and as with Kevin Hogan, Chuckie Keeton’s mobility will force the 5-2 defense to stay in their lanes on the outside with hopes of containing the slippery quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, look for Utah State to keep USC in a short passing game with hopes of containing Marqise Lee. Last year, the Aggies gave up just 5.7 yards per pass attempt in 2012, good for fifth in the nation, so depending on their scheme and zone packages, the ability is there for containment. The Trojans will need a solid performance in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but primarily from the offensive line and tight ends, where USC has the size to create leverage.
In the end, Utah State is a perfect non-conference test for the Trojans, especially going into a trio of toss-up games against the Arizonas and Notre Dame. A win over Utah State would go a long way in building confidence entering Pac-12 play, while the potential for a slip up should be enough to keep USC motivated through an extended early season homestand.