We've arrived at the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel today, and the madness really starts at the 6 p.m. kickoff. Before all that happens, here's some pre-game thoughts, observations and just a few questions sprinkled in to set up the game and its most important match-ups.
I thought this might be a good alternative to "five keys" since it's a more freewheeling, open format, but feel free to let me know what you think of our features.
• It's all about the run. Running the ball and stopping the run - really, that will be the key for both teams tonight, but particularly Utah State. The 41 yards on the ground wasn't good enough last year, and limited what the Aggies could do on offense. Chuckie Keeton will have to find some holes like he did last week, and Joey DeMartino will need to keep the defense honest with his run. It's important particularly because the Cougars have such a strong safety in Daniel Sorensen, and Utah State wants the middle of the defense to have to account for the run and the pass. On the other side of the ball, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill hasn't proven he can be a prolific passer yet, especially in the end zone, and the Aggies will try to force him to test out his arm. If Utah State can't bottle him and Jamaal Williams on the ground, it will set up BYU's offense nicely. If Connor Williams can return for the game, that might be an edge.
• How does the line hold up? In the last two weeks, Utah State saw its offensive line blasted and then watched it dominate a preseason-all Mountain West defensive tackle on pass rush last week. Is this offensive line the one that got rocked against USC? Or the one that punished San Jose State? Consider this week a gut check. Coach Mark Weber said the line has worked on its fundamentals and technique since its game against the Trojans, and he's seen progress. Kyle Van Noy and Alani Fua, among the other dangerous front-seven playmakers at BYU, will test that claim. Sini Tauauve'a is expected to slide in fairly cleanly on the offensive line, but it would not be surprising to see BYU try to target him in their blitzing schemes.
• Red zone, blue zone, USU zone, BYU zone. Whatever you want to call it, a key for the Aggies will be converting on drives that reach inside the 20 yard line. Although Utah State put up 40 points last week, many offensive players - and Matt Wells - were dissatisfied with getting three field goals out of drives that were in the red zone. If this is a close one, the Aggies could be kicking themselves over missed points. On the flip side, Utah State's defense has been excellent at keeping opposing teams out of the end zone when they get close, allowing only five touchdowns on 13 red zone possessions, a 38 percent mark. The Cougars have scored touchdowns on eight of their 19 red zone (or blue zone, I guess) possessions, for a 42 percent mark. As long as the Aggies can hold true to their numbers, this may be a key advantage for Utah State.
• Keep the flags hidden. One of the uglier trends for the Aggies is their propensity for getting knocked by penalties. They've had 37 flags this year, and are giving up an average of 74.4 yards per game. One of last week's saving graces was that San Jose State committed more penalties for more yards, which is crazy considering Utah State had 10 flags. There will be some penalties for aggressiveness and others in coverage, but Utah State can help itself by limiting those as best as they can. Against a defense like BYU's execution will be key.
• My own thought here: Beating BYU would loom large on the year, but also would be the biggest win to date for the Aggies this season. Boise State or Wyoming might be more critical, but there's no doubt a win over the Cougars is more impressive than any other Utah State victory this year (so far). The Aggies have only beaten one-win teams Air Force and San Jose State, who arguably are not the teams they were expected to be this season. BYU may be having an up-and-down year thus far, but beating a team that upset a nationally ranked opponent? That would look good stacked against the teams that Utah State has beaten in 2013. Not to mention that whole "rivalry, and Aggies have won once in 20 years" thing. A three-point loss shows the teams are competitive, but Utah State needs a win if it wants to keep this rivalry interesting.
See you at 6 p.m. tonight, or you can catch the game on CBS Sports Network.
— Kyle Goon