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October 3, 2012Who in the media knows this Aggie team better than former USU quarterback Riley Jensen? Riley has been following BYU closely as well and has some great insights on this rivalry. Both teams are very strong defensively, and as Riley said "The first team to 17 points wins."
The first thing to address was how this game would be played going forward. When I saw that BYU had scheduled 2 for 1's with Utah State the year after Utah State beat BYU in Romney Stadium, I assumed that BYU must have offered them more money from the BYU home games. It made sense, BYU needs home games because of the 2 for 1's with Texas and Notre Dame, and Utah State's program needed more money to pay a coach who is taking the program to levels that it has rarely seen. But that wasn't the case according to Riley, Utah State had done BYU a favor in these opening years of Independence, to get the home games that BYU needed. And after this contract is over in 2015, I expect BYU to put this rivalry back where it should be as a home and home. Riley could see where BYU is coming from: "I could see BYU wanting a little bit more time on this, instead of feeling that Utah State is a flash in the pan. Sure we've put together two good years now, really one and a half, I could see why they would want to put in a little bit more time. But it feels to me as a Utah State person that BYU has lost a little bit of their bargaining power that they used to have and I think it's a little bit of a slap in the face to the Utah State program, a little bit, not a ton, when you sign a home and home with Middle Tennessee State but you're not willing to do one with Utah State. I think that's where Utah State fans and probably Athletic Directors are coming from. But I can also see where BYU's coming from, win a conference title one time, win a bowl game once, then we'll start thinking about a home and home." I'm confident that come 2015 Utah State will be competing for the Mountain West title consistently and that it will be a no-brainer to sign a home and home, and if BYU wants a November game, maybe schedule this rivalry game as the last game of the year in November.
If there is one player that the Aggies are looking toward to lead them to success in the Mountain West in the future it's Chuckie Keeton. Keeton was near perfect against Southern Utah, impressively efficient against a solid Utah defense, but struggled against both Wisconsin and Colorado State. It's expected that a Big 10 defensive power like Wisconsin would give Chuckie a run for his money, but his struggles against Colorado State were surprising. Then he bounced back and had the best passing game Utah State has seen in a decade against UNLV. "I think what Utah State is doing is they are just opening up the playbook more and more and more for Keeton. What has been so great about Keeton in the past is he just doesn't have those turnovers that cost you. One of the things that he's done a really good job of even last year is he just doesn't turn the ball over. You run the risk, when you're playing conservative with your quarterback that you're also not going to get the big plays. So I think they're looking for him to make a couple more big plays and as he's going through those growing pains a little bit, he still doesn't look as good throwing downfield as I would like him to look... Overall his 11 to 4 touchdown to interception ratio is really good, he's really good in the redzone, and you like to see those kind of numbers from a quarterback.... I think you'll see a quarterback in this game that takes care of the football, Chuckie's feet really cause a lot of problems for defenses because we all know that if you can run the ball but you can't throw it then it's not really a threat. But when you can throw the ball as efficiently as he does and then also beat you with his feet, he causes a lot of problems. BYU hasn't seen a quarterback like him yet this season... BYU has played against some pretty good teams, but the best offense they've played against is ranked 72nd in the country with Boise State, and Utah State comes into this game ranked 40th in the country. Not that they can't handle it with this stout defense that they have, but it's going to be a little bit more of a challenge defensively than they've had to face."
One thing that Riley had noticed was that Keeton had taken some hits in the pocket against both Colorado State and Wisconsin. It will be key for BYU to get some pressure on him, which is right up this BYU defense's alley, although this Utah State offensive line is a good run and pass blocking unit. "The strength again is that they're able to run the ball, this is a team that averages over 200 yards rushing a game, they can get after you, they can get up field and they can play downhill. The strength of this team is Tyler Larsen the center, a lot of the scouts that I've talked to are saying that he's a first day draft pick.... I think this offensive line is also a very good pass blocking team.... Overall this is a team that is pretty solid on that offensive line and it's a confident bunch right now at Utah State."
When a team has as many great defensive players as BYU has, and one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Bronco Mendenhall, then there aren't going to be many holes for Utah State to take advantage of. When I asked Riley if he has seen any weaknesses in the BYU defense that Utah State might be able to take advantage of he went on talk about how good each and every position group on this defense is, then brought up a couple of good points to look out for. "There's not a lot of holes, here's where I would say there are some holes. I felt like in the University of Utah game that the offensive line for the University of Utah did open some good holes but some of those backup running backs were not able to take advantage of those holes. I think a healthy John White would have helped them to get through some of those holes. So I think there are some seams in the run game, although I am kinda grasping at straws here a little bit. Then the other thing is that if you can establish a running game, I do think that these safeties are aggressive enough that you can take advantage of them in the playaction game.... when you have an aggressive defense, misdirection, playaction and taking advantage of their aggressiveness is usually something that can kind of hurt a team."
This Utah State defense isn't too shabby themselves. Having played an almost identical schedule as BYU has as far as the strength of the opponent and the capability of the opposing offense, Utah State is ranked 18th in the country in points allowed. Utah State played against Utah while John White was healthy for a majority of the game, and they managed to contain him pretty well holding him to 3.6 yards per carry, 96 yards on 27 carries. The following game they played against Wisconsin and 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball and held him to 3.8 yards per carry, 139 yards on 37 carries. Those two teams however run almost exclusively between the tackles, and BYU runs almost exclusively outside the tackles. "I think that's going to put a little bit of pressure on those guys. I will say this, the linebackers for Utah State have really really surprised me. The team speed at Utah State is probably the most athletic I've seen since 1997. The linebackers from sideline to sideline are as good as they've been... They just play hard nosed, good assignment football. It's very similar to University of Utah defenses of the past where these guys just knew exactly what their assignment was and if you know what you're doing then you can play fast... That's kind of a signature of this Gary Andersen defense is that these guys know their assignments and they get there fast. I think the other thing that will help Utah State on the outside run game is that those safeties know how to fly up and make plays too, I think that you'll be impressed with those guys as safeties in this game as well."
"The numbers don't necessarily reflect it, but I think they are a typical good defense that takes away the run game and forces you to beat them with the pass. Teams have not been able to run the ball very effectively against Utah State... and their team pass defense is 18th in the country... Utah State's defensive line is long, lean and fast, I think the linebackers are more impressive as a whole, but I think the D-Linemen do a really good job and I think they're as deep as they've ever been at D-Line. If you're talking about the weakness for Utah State, the corners make me nervous sometimes, they seem to get a lot of pass interference calls, and they also seem to do that thing that drives every fan crazy where they're right there in coverage and they're not turning their head around, and they're considerably shorter than Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo. That's going to be an interesting matchup for them, they're going to have to do some things like be physical off the ball so that those guys don't get to do whatever they want when they're going out on routes. They run a lot of man to man, there's a lot of times where it's 7 man and 8 man fronts and its man to man out there and those guys are on islands so they are athletic."
Riley feels that the "hidden yardage" in special teams will be a key to the game for both teams. Similar to BYU's defense before the Hawaii game, the Utah State defense hasn't caused many turnovers, which Riley feels will be a key to the game for Utah State if they are going to win. So far Utah State has been negative on the turnover margin in all of their wins, and was positive in their only loss. On the year they are minus 4, and Riley doesn't believe that they can lose the turnover battle in this game and still win. Riley's key to the game for BYU to win was "If you're attacking this Utah State defense you've got to be able to run the ball to beat them." Despite Riley Nelson's propensity to turn the ball over and Taysom Hill's ability to run the ball, Riley Jensen wasn't sure that Taysom gives BYU a better chance to win because of the simplicity of the playbook with him at quarterback and his ability to pass. "The question is how well will BYU be able to run the ball and if the pressure is on Taysom to throw only, what happens in that situation? 12 for 21 is pretty good, but he also had almost 400 yards rushing. It's easy to play quarterback when you have that many yards rushing... But then again Riley (Nelson) tried his very best to have 4 turnovers against Utah and I think he only had 2."
"There's no question that this is a better team than last year in my opinion. Better individual players? I don't know, but it's a better team than what you saw last year in Lavell Edwards Stadium. These guys are playing with some confidence and some swagger, I think Utah State has had this one circled since last year, I think last year was a heart-breaker for them and I don't think they like the taste that it left in their mouth... My first gut feeling was that Utah State is going to win this game, but BYU is tied or better than Utah State in 39 of the 52 statistical categories, and that number makes me nervous. I was leaning towards Utah State then as I've been looking through these stats I feel myself leaning towards BYU now."
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