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What you need to know: BYU vs Utah State preview

The Cougars come in with a top 20 ranking for the first time in five years and they don't want to give it up.

Mitch Mathews grabs a pass against USU last year.
Mitch Mathews grabs a pass against USU last year.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The History

This Friday will mark the 84th meeting between the BYU Cougars and the Utah State Aggies.  The first game was held in Provo in 1922 and the Aggies came out with a 42-3 victory.  Overall, BYU holds a series lead at 46-34-3 Cougars, while the Aggies have held the home field advantage by two games.  Utah State took control of the series early when it won 30 of the first 50 meetings and then BYU took control in in 1975.  Since the win in 1975, the Cougars have only lost four times.  As an extra incentive for the game, the Old Wagon Wheel trophy was introduced in 1948 and has been awarded to the winning team ever since.  Another tradition was started in 1981 when the teams started meeting on the first Friday of October.  Over the last couple of years, the series has taken on more importance even though the Cougars have won 13 of the last 14.  With closer games the teams are looking much more balanced and are beginning to lead to exciting finishes.  With so many games we can choose to focus on, we will stay current and look at the last two games.

Provo, Utah 2012 BYU 6-3

In a game that matched a stout BYU defense against a very versatile Keeton, the defense won the battle.  The Aggies made a field goal on their second drive of the game after the Cougars defense stopped the Aggies three times inside the ten yard line to take a 3-0 lead.  This would hold up until the last three seconds of the half when Taysom Hill led the Cougars on a 25-second, 61-yard scoring drive.  Hill completed passes of 8, 28, and 22 yards to Hoffman before tossing a 3-yard score to JD Falslev.  With the missed extra point the Cougars would finish all scoring as they went into the half up 6-3.

The second half continued to be dominated by defense and the Cougars recovered a fumble at the USU 9-yard line, but failed to convert a fake field goal to miss an opportunity.  The Cougars defense again came up big with an interception on a gadget play at the 2-yard line to prevent a touchdown.  After a Hill interception, the Aggies missed a game tying field goal and the defense held one last time to run out the clock.  BYU outgained the Aggies 380 yards to 243 with Hill going 24-36 for 235 yards along with a touchdown and an interception.

Logan, Utah 2013 BYU 31-14

Behind big days by Taysom Hill and Mitch Mathews, the Cougars came out of Romney Stadium with a convincing victory.  The game started off rough for the Aggies as the first play from scrimmage was read with perfection by Kyle Van Noy.  With a short throw to the side from Chuckie Keeton, Van Noy jumped the route and grabbed the pass, running it back 18 yards for the pick six.  Utah State would bounce back with a forced fumble at the Cougars 15-yard line and quickly tied up the game.  BYU would add a field goal in the first quarter to take a 10-7 lead.  The Utah State offense took a hit late in the first when Keeton went down with an injury that ended his season.

The Cougars added to their lead in the second quarter as Jamaal Williams converted a third down with a 44-yard rush, leading to a Hill to Mathews 30-yard touchdown.  Utah State tried to come back but had to settle for a 47-yard field goal attempt that was promptly blocked by Daniel Sorensen and the teams went into the half with a score of 17-7.  Shortly after halftime, the Cougars again found the endzone as Hill once again found Mathews in the score and a 24-7 lead.  Only minutes later the duo would hook up one more time as Hill found Mathews for a 43-yard touchdown that put the Aggies away.  Utah State would add one more touchdown to their score late in the fourth quarter, but it would have no impact on the game.  With the 31-14 win, the Cougars demonstrated a tough defense that was led by Uani‘ Unga who recorded 17 tackles.

The Outlook

The Cougars are coming off a fourth straight win to start the season for only the second time since Bronco Mendenhall took over the program.  With the undefeated record the Cougars are experiencing a surge of media attention as they are being mentioned as possible inclusions in the New Year's Day Six bowl games and Hill is being mentioned in the Heisman talk. The optimism is flowing in Provo, but along with it is some healthy skepticism.  Great things are happening on the field, yet there is always room for improvement.

The Positives

One of the most dramatic changes this year is the Cougars ability to score points.  Through four games BYU is averaging over 37 points per game compared to just over 26 through four in 2013.  Included in this change is the amazing 95 percent scoring conversion (18 of 19) the 68 percent touchdown conversion in the redzone.  With more points coming from inside the 20, the Cougars are a bigger scoring threat than last year.

The special teams continue to be a bright spot, among many, for the Cougars. Last game the Cougars finally got Adam Hine his elusive kickoff return for a touchdown when he went untouched for a 99-yard return.  In the kicking game Trevor Samson is 5 of 6 on field goals and 19 for 19 on extra point attempts. Finally, you have to hand it to Scott Arellano for averaging over 47 yards a punt, dropping 9 of 15 punts inside the 20 and hitting eight punts for over 50 yards.

The Negatives

Although penalties continue to haunt the Cougars, their inability to finish a pass rush might be more worrisome.  Against Houston and Virginia the Cougars were able to get to the quarterback, but it seemed to be just after he had let go of the ball.  If they can't get to him earlier, don't be surprised if the opponents passing numbers continue to build up.  The return of Bronson Kaufusi should help with this, but he can't make this change alone.

Another concern that has reared its head is the inability to put a team away.  This has really been apparent in the last couple games when the chances have been there, but BYU let the team hang around.  The Cougars can't continue to let teams hang around and stay within a possession or two without having it cause problems.  One more stop or one more scoring drive would be enough to take the wind out of a team and let the Cougars breathe a sigh of relief.

The Match-ups

USU quarterback vs. BYU secondary

Regardless of who starts for the Aggies, the Cougars secondary will need to be ready.  If Keeton starts the secondary will need to make sure they trust the front seven to contain Keeton while they stay with the receivers.  Keeton hasn't looked like himself this year, but that could change at any time.  If he gets out of the pocket, he can cause problems on the ground or toss it to an improvising receiver.  If the secondary stays with the receivers it will give the front seven a chance to run or contain Keeton before he can cause too much damage.

If Darell Garretson starts the game the Cougars will be facing a more traditional passing quarterback that will look to get the ball away at any cost.  If the secondary can play tight coverage on the receivers it will allow the front seven to pressure Garretson and either collapse the pocket or force him into a bad decision and possibly a turnover.

BYU run game vs. USU defense:

As Taysom showed the Aggies last year, the Cougars can pass the ball.  With even more size and speed on for the Cougars at the receiver position, the Aggies will be looking to stop the pass from the start.  If the offensive line can create holes up front, Jamaal Williams and Hill will find space to run in what could be a stretched out defense.  The Aggies have been hampered with some injuries on defense and are looking to fill some holes, but may struggle against a balanced BYU offense.

The Keys to Watch

When the Aggies have the ball:

Watch for the Aggies play to the strength of the quarterback.  If Keeton starts the game the Aggies will utilize his legs, as long as he is healthy.  He has struggled against BYU, but he gives them the best chance at a win with his dual threat talents.  If Garretson starts you will see much more pass protection in the cards and a game plan that will attack the BYU secondary.  Garretson has put up the better numbers this year, although the competition has been inferior.

Watch for the Cougars to put a spy on Keeton, if he plays, in order to contain him.  The Cougars have shown that they have the ability to slow down Chuckie and so the coaches will make sure the players are all on the same page and playing sound assignment defense.  If Garretson is in the game, watch for the front seven to dial up the pressure as they try to rattle him.  Watch for them to get to him a few times, letting him know that they are just a few steps away, and causing his internal clock to speed up just a bit.

When the Cougars have the ball:

Watch for the Cougars to start by establishing the run. They will use their normal assortment of rushing plays, including the read option, in order to force the defense to adjust and leave the receivers in single coverage.  Watch for the Cougars to throw deep a couple times as they remind the Aggies what Hill and Matthews did to the secondary last year, and could do with a number of receivers this year.  Watch for the Aggies to trust their secondary to not give up the long ball and stay with their receivers.  The Aggies will devote as many defenders as possible to stopping Hill and Williams in the run game, so they will show some one-on-one coverage in the secondary.

Interesting Tidbits

In 1976, Utah State purchased a live bull for its mascot, painted it blue before each game (Basketball and Football), and even fit it with rubber boots.  Even with this precaution, the bull caused too much damage to the arena and stadium so it had to be retired.  Their current mascot was introduced in 1987.  Visit the USU history page for a timeline of the school.

Next Meeting

The next meeting will be in Logan on November 28th, 2015

The Forecast

Look for a chilly night but no rain. The expected temperature will be high 50's-low 60's with winds about 4 mph.

The Broadcasting Details

Time: 8:15 pm MDT

Where: Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah


Radio (BYU): KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM, BYU Radio-Sirius XM 143

Listen Live via Internet (KSL): Click Here

Radio Links (Utah State): Click Here