College football has a way of surprising us. We often enter a game seeing it one way, maybe focusing on a particular match-up, and it turns out differently than expected. We think certain players will stand out, and someone surprises us with the game of their lives.
That's a longwinded way of saying I don't know what will happen when the Aggies step on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium today. My prediction is 23-21 for Utah State, but I'm counting on my prediction getting blown out of the water somehow, whether by score or victor.
But something that doesn't really change is this: Utah State needs to accomplish certain goals to win the game. For each goal they don't meet, their chances of getting a season-opening win in hostile territory drop preciptously.
After watching practice nearly every day this fall camp and taking in this match-up for the last week and a half, here's what I see as Utah State's five biggest keys to the game:
1. Stop the run • From coach Matt Wells on down, everyone has said the top defensive goal is to stop Kelvin York or whatever other rusher the Utes might throw out. The Aggies held Utah below the century mark last year, and it limited a lot of what the Utes could do offensively. It will be harder to do with a retooled and improved offensive line that has a size advantage, but the Aggies want to take away the proven facet of the offense and force Travis Wilson to show how he's gotten better in the passing game.
2. Limit Utah's explosive offensive plays • Matt Wells has done a fair amount of talking about Utah's receiving corps. Remember back: Kenneth Scott only caught three passes last year but was able to light Utah State up for 82 yards and two touchdowns. The Utes have great athletes in that group, which for practical purposes also includes tight ends Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga. They don't need to touch the ball often to end the game with big numbers. The Aggies need to limit their touches, but also embrace the bend-don't-break mentality of past years and really make sure those guys don't find open field when they do make catches.
3. Stretch the field with long catches • Here's the test for the wide receivers: Catch long passes. Chuckie Keeton is capable of getting balls downfield, but Travis Van Leeuwen and Travis Reynolds need to prove they can hold on. They did well this fall, but camp is camp, and a game is a game. If the Travises can't prove to be consistent downfield threats, it will limit Utah State's main strength in the run and short passing game. Vertical passing stretches the defense thin, so an early bomb could do a lot for the Utah State offense.
4. Keep the ball secure • Fumbles were a huge problem last year, helping Utah get back into the contest. Keeton is another year older and wiser, and may not struggle as much, but Joe Hill, Joey DeMartino and the receivers need to show that ball security is paramount. The Aggies need to keep the ball high and tight, and make sure they're not going to lose it when a defender comes a-swatting. Keeton will also have to watch out for throwing a pick against a potentially dangerous Utah secondary.
5. Reduce early season mistakes • A lot of season openers can be penalty flag fests, with guys moving too soon, or lining up the wrong way. Miscommunication and other issues can be challenging and frustrating. Compound that with a group of new coaches, and a few mistakes will happen for the Aggies. Utah State can't get flustered early in a hostile environment - with the emotion of a fanbase and a team that is fighting for revenge - or else that could be a slippery slope.
We'll see you tonight at 6 p.m.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon