Provo • There was a time when the BYU-Utah State football games meant the world to Kelly Poppinga, who has been on both sides of the rivalry.
“I am kinda past that now,” said the current BYU linebackers coach. “It is now just a really, really big game to prepare for. But yeah, it used to be really, really personal.”
Poppinga started his college playing career at Utah State in 2003 but transferred to BYU after the 2004 season in which he was the Aggies’ third-leading tackler. He faced his former team for the first time in 2006, and still remembers the “grief” he took from the Aggies during that 38-0 BYU win.
“The game was more of a big deal [for Utah State] when I was playing,” he said. “There were guys who grew up dreaming about coming here to BYU, like I did, and weren’t offered that scholarship, and they go to Utah State and they have something to prove. They have that chip on their shoulder.”
Poppinga said his perspective is that it isn’t like that anymore, because of how Utah State “has moved up into the Mountain West, and is playing really well, and winning 11 games last year.”
Still, he’s spent the week telling BYU players what to expect on Friday night at Romney Stadium.
“When we went up there in 2010, when we lost three years ago [31-16], it was brutal, man,” he said. “Their fans are nasty, and they get after you. They are talking to you from the minute you enter the stadium. Their student body is already in there two hours before the game, and already getting after you.”
The outside linebackers Poppinga coached warmed up right next to the student section, he recalled.
“And they were clever, too,” he said. “I give them props, man, for some of the best one-liners I have ever heard. But their fans are passionate, and that’s what is fun, when you go to a place like that. It is fun to play in that type of atmosphere, and it is fun to coach in that type of atmosphere. Our guys are looking forward to that.”
Sophomore running back Jamaal Williams is expected to play against the Aggies, but how much Williams will play, and how many carries he will get, is uncertain, offensive coordinator Robert Anae said Tuesday.
“We are going to watch that closely.” Anae said. “And we will be working with the trainers in that regard. Anytime a kid comes back from [a concussion], I would rather err on the side of caution. So, no, I am not looking for Jamaal to go in with his normal workload.”
Williams carried the ball 76 times before suffering the concussion in the third quarter against Utah, his third game of the season.
Getting their kick returns
With Adam Hine (concussion) not expected to play Friday, the Cougars have been holding tryouts, of sorts, for kick returners this week.
Poppinga said Tuesday that punt returner JD Falslev will probably get the job, but that Cody Hoffman (the last Cougar to return a kickoff for a touchdown that wasn’t called back by a penalty) is also being considered. Walk-on Eric Thornton is also a possibility.
“JD did a great job last year returning kickoffs for us at the end of the season, including a huge one at Georgia Tech,” Poppinga said. “And Cody has done a great job in the past as well.”
BYU ranks 23rd in the nation in total defense this season, while Utah State ranks 22nd. The Cougars, who have played one fewer game, are allowing 320.5 yards per game, while the Aggies are allowing 315.4 yards per game.
BYU is No. 10 in the country in third-down conversion defense, at 25.7 percent. The Aggies are 28th, at 31.3 percent.