Provo • While it doesn’t come close to the magnitude of Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Friday night’s nationally televised Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel between Utah State and Brigham Young will settle a few arguments that have dominated the state’s college football season the past few weeks.
Most notably, is Utah State (4-1) really the best team in the state this year? And has BYU really figured out the offensive problems that kept it from entering the game with a 5-0 record, instead of a mediocre 3-2?
Then there’s BYU’s major question at quarterback: Will freshman Taysom Hill get the nod for the second-straight week after leading the 47-0 beatdown of woeful Hawaii, or will coach Bronco Mendenhall go with senior Riley Nelson, whose bad back was a definite factor in losses at Utah and Boise State before he watched from the sidelines last week?
Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MDT at LaVell Edwards Stadium and the game will be televised by ESPN.
Conventional thinking is that a defensive battle is brewing, seeing as how the Cougars are ranked No. 5 nationally in total defense, while the Aggies are No. 11.
“BYU is a very talented team. Defense is as good as I’ve ever seen,” said USU coach Gary Andersen. “I have watched all their tapes, seen where they are at, what they are doing. Their numbers definitely hold up with who they are as a defensive football team.”
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has complimented USU all week as well, saying he’s impressed with USU’s talent in all three phases of the game. But Mendenhall isn’t ready to concede that it will be a low-scoring, defensive struggle.
“I never know. Just as soon as you start thinking that way, it might be 35-34, or something,” he said. “I have seen them play defensively, and I think they are good. I think they are good on offense, so who knows? I think it will be a good game. I just can’t predict the score.”
The Aggies have been better than BYU offensively this season, thanks to the outstanding play of quarterback Chuckie Keeton, the WAC offensive player of the week after throwing for a career-high 404 yards in last week’s 35-13 win over UNLV. Mobile quarterbacks such as Keeton have given BYU trouble over the years, and the Texan’s scrambling ability last year helped get USU out to a 24-13 lead before Nelson, the former Aggie, guided BYU to a 27-24 come-from-behind win with some last-second heroics that earned him the starting job the rest of the year.
“I like the challenge for our defensive players no matter who we play, and what style,” Mendenhall said. “So it doesn’t mean more or less. I just like the challenge, and this is one of them.”
The Aggies aren’t hiding the fact that revenge is on their minds after last year’s heartbreaking loss, but they’ve got some psychological hurdles to overcome as well.
BYU hasn’t lost to USU in Provo since 1978, a string of 16 consecutive home wins over the Aggies. The Cougars have defeated USU 11 times in the last 12 meetings, and 24 times in the 27 contests since that loss in 1978.
“They’ve got some pretty good mojo going right now, and I am sure they are excited about the game, as we are,” USU’s Andersen said. “But we will walk in there and expect to play well and win, and they will walk into their stadium and expect to play well and expect to win. So I think it will be a great game on ESPN.”
Utah State at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo)
Kickoff • 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, 610 AM and 102.1 FM
Records • BYU 3-2, Utah State 4-1
Series history • BYU leads 44-34-3
Last meeting • BYU 27, Utah State 24 (Sept. 30, 2011)
About the Aggies • 4-1 start to the season is their best since 1978, when they won their first five games. … They have won four of their past five road games, but are just 6-15 in road games under coach Gary Andersen. … They are 3-9 in October games under Andersen. … Quarterback Chuckie Keeton has completed 106 of 155 passes for 1,283 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions.
About the Cougars • Receiver Cody Hoffman has caught a pass in 24 consecutive games — tied for the 10th longest streak in the nation. … They are giving up just 226.6 yards per game, ranking them No. 5 in the country in total defense. … They have not allowed an offensive touchdown the past nine quarters. … They have held 11 consecutive opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense.