Who has the edge? Utah State Edition Part II
LARAMIE — People like to say that the game of football is not played on paper.
They are right — but it’s still fun to look.
Today, we will breakdown the defenses of the Utah State Aggies (5-4, 4-1) and Wyoming Cowboys (6-3, 3-2). The two squads will meet Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium in Logan. What's on the line? Plenty. These two rivals play for Jim Bridger's rifle. The Aggies are just one game behind Boise State in the Mountain Division race and Wyoming is looking to solidify its bowl standing.
So, who has the edge on defense?
When it was announced before game time that Boise State starting quarterback, Hank Bachmeier, wouldn't play Saturday night, most expected a heavy dose of George Holani and the Broncos rushing attack. Could the Cowboys defensive line hold up? Actually, when are we going to stop doubting these guys? They are one of the best units in college football. They proved that again Saturday, holding Boise State to just 91 yards rushing on 28 attempts. That's just 3.3 yards per carry. Javaree Jackson was an absolute menace for the Pokes on the blue turf in Boise. In the third quarter, the big junior stuffed Holani behind the line, forced a fumble and pounced on it. Xazavian Valladay was standing in the end zone a few plays later. Jackson finished with three tackles from his nose tackle position. Cole Godbout and Mario Mora combined for four tackles, half-a-ask and a tackle for loss. Wyoming's standout defensive ends, Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd, had a little meeting in the Bronco backfield Saturday night. Boise State quarterback, Chase Cord, was the guest of honor. Both were credited with 0.5 sacks. It all starts with the defensive line -- and these guys continue to shutdown the run game. Wyoming is ranked 10th in the nation in that category, allowing just 97.6 yards on the ground per game. That's an average of 2.8 yards per carry. The Cowboys finished the night with two sacks. That makes 28 on the season, which is good enough for 19th in the country. Utah State doesn't allow many sacks (13) or tackles for loss (48). Running the ball isn't exactly the Aggies strong suit though, averaging just 152 yards per game.
The Aggies rushing defense is near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference, allowing 182.4 yards per game. Utah State's defensive line has registered just 16 sacks this season. They've recorded just 48 tackles for loss. Those numbers aren't great, but that doesn't mean the Aggies don't have some play makers on the line. Utah State returns three of four starters from last season's squad, including Chris Unga, Devon Anderson and Tipa Galeai. Newcomer Justus Te'i has arguably been the Aggies best lineman this season, racking up 36 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery through nine games. Galeai is having a big senior season. He has 33 tackles and a pair of sacks. Nick Heninger leads Utah State with three sacks this season from his defensive end spot. This unit has really struggled on third downs this season. Utah Stage is 118th in the country at getting off the field. They are 73rd in the nation in red zone defense, too. Wyoming's young, tough offensive line could make hay against these guys and get rolling down hill early.
Logan Wilson was everywhere Saturday night. I mean, he typically is, but this looked different. The senior captain from Casper finished the night tied for the team lead in tackles with 10, sacked Cord and picked him off late in regulation. Wilson tried to will this team to victory. He darn near did it. Cassh Maluia, Wilson's senior sidekick, had a big night, too, racking up seven tackles and picking up 0.5 tackles for loss. Chad Muma laid a big hit on Cord late in the first half on a delayed blitz. The signal caller was clearly in some discomfort and spent most of the second quarter in and out of the medical tent on Boise State's sideline. In the second half, Cord was sporting a brace on his right knee. However, Wyoming failed to deliver the knockout punch. Cord finished the night 19-for-30 for 190 yards and a touchdown. This unit has remained fairly healthy this fall. That changed Saturday night when Cheyenne product, Ben Wisdorf, was hurt on punt coverage. He was taken off the field, unable to put any weight on his right leg. Monday, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said he wasn't hopeful that the senior will return this season. That's a blow to linebacker depth, and even more impactful on special teams. Caleb Repp, Utah State's top tight end, should keep Wyoming's linebackers plenty busy Saturday. He has 26 catches for 327 yards and two touchdowns.
David Woodward will miss the rest of the 2019 season with an undisclosed injury. He is the "Logan Wilson" of the Aggies defense. He might have a little Alijah Halliburton in him, too. Why? He's a tackling machine. He is in the top five in the nation in tackles with 93. Woodward also has two sacks and four forced fumbles. He's a pest. A big one. The loss of Woodward will be a large one for the Aggies. His partner in crime, Kevin Meitzenheimer, is solid, too. He has 58 tackles and an interception to go along with a forced fumble. And speaking of forced fumbles, the Aggies have recovered nine of those this season. That's good enough for 11th in the country in that category. Utah State switches between a 3-and-4-man front. Their defensive ends are very active, so are their safeties. These two are the rocks in the defense, though. Like Wilson and Maluia for Wyoming, these two can change a game plan. If the Cowboys linebackers weren't better at creating takeaways -- barely -- and the Aggies had Woodward, this would be a push. Wyoming has the edge.
Considering the task at hand, Wyoming's secondary seemed every bit up for the challenge it faced Saturday night in Boise. The Broncos featured four receivers with more than 400 receiving yards this season. That spelled trouble for a Cowboys secondary that has seen it all this season from injuries to team departures to the resignation of their position coach. Safety Alijah Halliburton once again recorded a double-digit tackle night with 10, and corner Azizi Hearn racked up five tackles and a pass breakup. Keyon Blankenbaker picked up four tackles from the nickle position, and Esaias Gandy finished with three stops. Tyler Hall, Hearn, Rome Weber, Braden Smith and Jordan Murry held the Broncos aerial assault to just 194 yards and limited the explosive plays. It was a tall task, but the Cowboys on the back end definitely kept everything in front of them, sometimes too much. Now, the Pokes get to face the Mountain West Conference's preseason Offensive Player of the Year in Utah State's Jordan Love. The school pushed Love's Heisman campaign in the preseason, but he hasn't quite lived up to the hype this season. That doesn't mean he sin't dangerous. He has throws for 2,402 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He has also tossed 12 interceptions. Siaosi Mariner is Love's favorite target, hauling in 45 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns. Jordan Nathan has 409 yards receiving, and Deven Thompkins and tight end, Repp, both have more than 300 yards through the air. Once again, this secondary is about to be tested in a big way. Can they hold up? We'll see. Utah State averages 279 yards per game through the air. That's 29th in the nation.
As bad as Wyoming's secondary has been at times, the same can be said for the Aggies, who are giving up 258 yards passing per game through the air. That's 103rd in the country, about 20 slots ahead of the Pokes. Safety Troy Lefeged Jr. is the hammer on the Aggies back end. He has 62 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. DJ Williams is Utah State's best cover corner. He has six pass breakups to go along with 59 tackles. The Aggies have picked off just six passes this season. Cornerbacks, Dominic Tatum and Cam Lampkin, each have two interceptions. Fellow corner, Zahodri Jackson, also has one pick this season. The Aggies have a ton of depth in the secondary, something Wyoming could only dream of. But, these guys give up a ton of big plays and yardage. Can the Cowboys capitalize? Will the game plan allow for it?
ADVANTAGE: Utah State