VANQUISH THE FOE: Taysom Hill is known for his ability to run the ball but last year against USU he beat the Aggies through the air. How will the Aggies plan on stopping the junior quarterback this season?
Connor Comeau: In order to stop or slow down Taysom Hill, they are going to have to stop him from running the football. Right now, Utah State is ranked seventh in the nation in run defense and does a very good job at slowing down the run. The key here is to make Hill uncomfortable with the ball and make him throw it. If they can apply constant pressure outside the pocket and the secondary does its job, it may be a rough night for Taysom.
Matthew Glade: I think the first thing Utah State will do (or should do) is find out where Mitch Matthews is at all times after what he did to them last year, five catches for 112 yards and three touchdowns . BYU has added more weapons for Taysom, so the key for the Aggies will be to get pressure on Taysom and get him to run. Not to say Taysom isn’t a dangerous runner, but USU’s strength is their run defense. In 2013, they held Taysom to a season low 14 yards on 9 carries. Right now USU’s rush defense is tied for fourth in the nation, holding opponents to just over 78 yards per game; this included holding Wake Forest to -25 yards rushing total.
The Aggies have also done a great job forcing turnovers this season; six interceptions and five forced fumbles. Getting pressure on Taysom is also key in forcing him to make a mistake and turning the ball over; and with the way the USU offense has been playing, they will need this to happen.
VTF: It has been an up and down start for the Aggies this season with two home wins (one over a P5 school in Wake Forest) and two road losses. What is the mentality of this team four games into the season?
Connor Comeau: It feels like the team is trying to get its offense more focused on getting figured out before the 2nd half of the season. The Tennessee game was a wake up call for the team that things need to be worked on. It seems that the team is still focused on getting to the ultimate goal of winning a Mountain West Championship. It certainly shows with the way the team plays at home, but they'll have to prove themselves on the road if they want to win.
Matthew Glade: Considering how much adversity this team has faced, key injuries (Keeton, Fackrell, and Swindall) and an inconsistent offense, this team is still optimistic about their season. A big problem for the Aggies this season has been their offense line; they’ve replaced four players from last year, with Kevin Whimpey the only returning starter and the group has struggled to put together a complete game so far. As Whimpey pointed out in Monday’s press conference, "there’s no substitution for in-game reps;" and this group just hasn’t had enough reps together yet. Now, they’re getting better; every game we’ve seen improvement, but it’s still not to the level it needs to be.
VTF: Utah State has been operating with the running back by committee approach with Rashad Hall, LaJuan Hunt and Joe Hill each getting a fairly equal workload. With the QB situation in flux, is this group ready to be the focal point of the offense?
Connor Comeau: The running backs have been doing a decent job this season on offense, but it seems the larger workload on offense is starting to take a toll on them. Joe Hill is the center of the running back corps and, with the right group of people, can be a beast running the football. With the offensive line not being what it used to be, the running backs may continue to have a tougher time. And if the quarterbacks continue to be up in the air, it may be up to these three to carry the team.
Matthew Glade: Whether they are or not, they need to be. The situation became more in flux when Joe Hill suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of most of the Arkansas State game; Hall and Hunt looked much better that game, rushing for a combined 114 yards on 21 combined carriers. Garretson is at his best when he’s throwing the ball downfield, off play-action; so in order for that to happen, they need to be getting four or five yards per carry.
The wildcard in the run game is JoJo Natson. He’s a wide receiver but has lined up in the backfield more than a few times this season. He has a 17 carries for 158 yards and has at least one 15-yard run in every game thus far this season. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on in this game.
VTF: Does the fact that neither BYU or Utah State play against Utah this season heighten the stakes for this in-state showdown?
Connor Comeau: It may somewhat. BYU and Utah have been rivals for a very long time and are accustomed to playing one another. But with their series on a two-year hiatus, the Cougars are probably more focused on the Aggies. The last few games against these teams have either been offensive or defensive slugfests, which have led some to believe that this a new height in their rivalry. Also, Utah State is going up against a ranked BYU teams this year, and USU would love nothing more to hand the Cougs their first loss.
Matthew Glade: Absolutely! How can it not? We all know it’s not BYU-Utah and most BYU fans don’t view USU as anything more than their "little brother," but these in-state games are fun and they mean something to the players.
VTF: Utah State has developed some great NFL talented over the past few years, namely Nevin Lawson and Bobby Wagner. Who are the playmakers on the Aggie defense this season?
Connor Comeau: With Fackrell out for the year, the focus of the defense is now on B.J. Larsen and Zach Vigil. Both of these players have big play ability. Vigil does a very good job reading the quarterback and disguising his coverage scheme. And Larsen is a very big defensive end with the ability to get to the quarterback quickly and wrap ball carriers up for losses. It will be a long game if these two can get hot, especially in the second half with both their abilities.
Matthew Glade: The Vigil brothers, Nick and Zach. The two linebackers are playing at extremely high levels right now combining for 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception, and two forced fumbles. True freshman Jalen Davis has also been playing very well at the corner position, he’s going to have plenty of chances to make a play Friday night with the bevy of receivers Taysom has to throw to.
VTF: With Chuckie Keeton sidelined for the season, what can be expected from Darell Garretson?
Connor Comeau: With having experience as Chuckie's replacement in the 2nd half of last season, Garretson certainly has the tools to start at quarterback. Even though he may not be as mobile as Keeton, he still has the ability to read the defense and get the ball out of his hands very quickly.
Matthew Glade: Garretson isn’t as dynamic as Keeton, but he can still win. While he struggled some two weeks ago at Arkansas State, you still have to look back at what he did last year as a true freshman, taking the Aggies to the Mountain West title game.
VTF: How do you see the game playing out?
Connor Comeau: If the run defense can do its job and pressure Taysom Hill, the Aggies stand a good chance of keeping this close. However, its going to be up to the offense to get the job done. I don't expect to be a 21-point blowout, but I do see the Cougars winning this one, 27-20.
Matthew Glade: I think we’re going to see a game similar to 2012, maybe slightly higher scoring, with BYU coming out on top (a 17-7 type of game). If Utah State has any chance of winning in Provo, they’re going to need a touchdown from their defense or special teams. They have four so far this season, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but right now the offense isn’t playing well enough to keep up with BYU if they start scoring a lot of points.
Thanks again to Connor Comeau & Matthew Glade of Mountain West Connection and KSL.com for their help with this article.