Who has the edge? Utah State Edition
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 offenses 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 offense?
Let’s break it down real quick.
So far, so good. Tyler Vander Waal was stellar in his first start under center in nearly a calendar year, completing 15-of-23 passes for 160 yards. The sophomore from Elk Grove, Calif., added a three-yard rushing touchdown in Boise last Saturday night. Vander Waal was cool under pressure, elusive and showed what a competitor he is, getting into it with Bronco defenders and the home fans. Vander Waal said last season he would let one incomplete pass ruin an entire series. He was in his own head. This time around, his motto is: "screw it." His goal is to move on to the next play. That's exactly what he did against the No. 22 Broncos. You think Vander Waal wants a piece of Utah State? Remember, this is the game last season in Laramie where Sean Chambers was inserted and Vander Waal lost his starting job. He said he's been thinking about the Aggies ever since, hoping to get this chance. Well, here it is. Utah State's secondary gives up plenty of big pass plays. The Aggies are 103rd in the nation in yards allowed through the air. That's 258 yards per game.
You know your hot stuff when you have your own package of heart candies. Jordan Love also has pens and pads with his face all over them. That was Utah State's way of promoting their junior quarterback for the Heisman Trophy during the preseason. Well, that isn't happening, but Love is still one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown for 2,402 yards and 11 touchdowns. The issue -- he has also thrown 12 interceptions. Love is the typical dual-threat guy. He has also rushed for 110 yards on 53 carries. The Aggies are 29th in the nation in passing, averaging 279 yards per outing. Love must be licking his chops just thinking about the possibilities Saturday afternoon. Wyoming's secondary was giving up yards in bunches at the beginning of the season. Now, they are without three regulars and their position coach. The Cowboys' back end has played better as of late, but this will be a big task in Logan. Love may not be winning a Heisman anytime soon, but he can still be surgical. Just ask Fresno State. Last week, Love completed 30-of-39 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns. The other Love could emerge, too. A week prior, he completed just 50 percent of his passes while throwing three interceptions in a blowout home loss to rival BYU. Wyoming better hope it gets the latter.
ADVANTAGE: Utah State
"We'll just keep running him." That's Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl's plan for Xazavian Valladay after the sophomore carried the ball a career-high 37 times for 124 yards and a touchdown against Boise State. Valladay was the only Cowboy running back to touch the ball in Idaho. That might be the case yet again this Saturday in Logan. Valladay has become the Pokes workhorse since Titus Swen and Trey Smith went down with injuries. Check out these eye-popping numbers: 96 carries, 457 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. That's Valladay's three-week workload. Oh, and he's also snagged five passes for 120 yards and a score. Valladay scored on a 21-yard dash to the end zone against the Broncos in the third quarter. Other than that, every yard was hard-earned in Boise. Valladay took a pounding, and a nagging ankle injury resurfaced after making a catch at midfield. He walked off under his own power and was back for the next series. Will Alphonzo Andrews Jr., the highly recruited prospect out of St. Louis, be available this week? Bohl said he needs to see more out of the true freshman in practice this week. Help could be on the way though. Swen could be cleared for action the following week against Colorado State. Smith could be a week behind him. Utah State's rush defense has been gashed this season to the tune of 182 yards per game. The Aggies do go after the ball though. As a team, they have nine fumble recoveries. That's 11th in the nation in that category.
Utah State is a passing team. There's no getting around that fact. But, when they do hand the ball off, they have a guy more than capable of carrying the load in Gerold Bright. the 5-foot, 10-inch, 190-pound senior has 614 rushing yards on just 115 carries. That's an average of 5.3 yards per rush. He also has six touchdowns. Bright has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark twice this season. His biggest game came against Colorado State in the rain where he carried the ball a season-high 36 times for 179 yards. The Aggies average just 152 yards per game on the ground, which is good enough for 82nd in the nation. Utah State tends to go away from Bright in the red zone. That has proven to be a costly mistake. The Aggies are 125th in the nation in that category, scoring on just 22-of-33 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Wyoming is ranked 10th in the nation against the rush, allowing just 97.6 yards per game per game on the ground. The Cowboys won't let Bright beat them -- but he might not have to. Unlike the Pokes, Utah State has a solid back-up plan at tailback. Jaylen Warren has 444 yards on 78 carries this season. He's averaging 5.7 yards per rush. Utah State is committed to the run the way the visitors are. That's why the Pokes will have the edge here despite lack of depth. If the going gets tough, Wyoming will continue to pound the interior. The Aggies won't.
WIDE RECEIVERS/ TIGHT ENDS:
Vander Waal completed passes to six different receivers in Boise. Josh Harshman, the fifth-year senior and Casper product, was on the receiving end of six of those. That was a career high for the tight end. Raghib Ismail Jr. continued his hot play of late, snagging three passes for 37 yards. Valladay caught a pair of passes and Ayden Eberhardt, Jackson Marcotte, Gunner Gentry and Austin Conway also hauled in one each. Were the numbers impressive? No. not really. But the Cowboys did spread the love and pick up key yards while finishing 7-for-17 on third down. Wyoming still isn't scaring anyone with its passing game -- 126th in the nation at 128 yards per game -- but these guys are getting more comfortable each week. Might this be the Saturday we see the aerial attack come together? Utah State's secondary isn't exactly the "Legion of Boom." The Aggies surrender 258 passing yards per outing. That's 103rd in the nation out of 130 teams. Utah State gives up 440 yards per game. That is also 102nd in the country.
Get to know the name Siaosi Mariner. You'll probably hear it a lot Saturday. The 6-foot, 2-inch senior is one of the best receivers in the nation, hauling in 45 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns. Love to Mariner will be the connection. Wyoming cornerback, Tyler Hall, knows he has a battle on his hands, but said Monday he up for the task. That's a good thing, because the Aggies have reserves. Jordan Nathan and Deven Thompkins are also putting up big numbers in the Aggies' pass-happy offense. Nathan has 32 grabs for 409 yards and a score. Thompkins has snagged 30 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns. If those options don't work, tight end Caleb Repp is also a favorite of Love. He has caught 26 passes for 327 yards and a pair of touchdowns. These guys will make all the difference in Logan. Can Wyoming shut them down? Limit them? They will have to.
ADVANTAGE: Utah State
This group is getting healthy. Zach Watts, who was injured in the spring, is expected to be cleared for practice this week. Alonzo Velazquez is also getting close to a return. Bohl thought both might be cleared as early as last week. Neither made the trip to Boise. The ones that did were impressive once again. Vander Waal was sacked just three times on the night, which is a victory in many ways considering the beast named Curtis Weaver. Redshirt freshman, Frank Crum, drew the task of blocking him. He got beat twice. The Laramie product held his own though. Keegan Cryder, Wyoming's center, had the block of the night, taking out his man before moving on to the next poor soul, opening a massive hole on Valladay's touchdown scamper. The depth chart hasn't changed this week: Rudy Stofer (LT), Patrick Arnold (LG), Cryder (C), Logan Harris (RG) and Crum (RT). Bohl likes to say "dance with who brung ya." These guys have definitely plowed the way for the Cowboys 15th-ranked rushing offense, which averages 226.4 yards per game. Utah State allows 182.4 yards per game on the ground. Look for these guys to do some damage against the Aggies three-man front. Utah State has 16 sacks on the season to go along with 48 tackles for loss. Unlike Boise State, the Aggies give up third-down conversions in droves. They are 118th overall. Wyoming needs to take advantage.
Utah State returned just one starter on the offensive line this season. That man is Alfred Edwards, a sophomore left tackle, who protects Love's backside. He will get plenty of introduction to Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd Saturday. Despite the youth and inexperience across the board, this unit has been a good one for the Aggies. As a group, they have allowed just 13 sacks. They have also surrendered just 43 tackles for loss. And remember, this group pass blocks a lot. The front five has been solid. Utah State is 59th in the nation in third-down conversions, can rush the ball, and, of course, sling it around the yard. Love also helps them out with his legs. He isn't a sitting duck back there. If these guys can open running lanes and keep Love upright, it could be a long day for the Cowboys. Wyoming leads the MWC with 30 sacks. They will be coming all afternoon. Can the Aggies handle it?