Logan • The defensive line set the tone for Utah State last Saturday, honing in on Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson and sacking him twice on the Rams’ first possession.
It seems so long ago that Gary Andersen publicly questioned during spring practice whether he had Division I-caliber players up front.
UNLV at Utah StateSaturday, 6 p.m.
Broadcast » ESPN3.com
USU now sports the 11th-ranked defense nationally, spearheading a 3-1 start that could get even better with a win Saturday over UNLV.
The line has been a major surprise — or a major gift — to the Aggies. Instead of being a liability, it’s been a strength. Instead of having to scheme around it, Utah State has been able to count on it.
"They have played extremely well as a group," Andersen said. "They were challenged to play well and they have responded to that challenge. It’s been a night and day change from last year. The group as a whole has been tremendous. The coaches have done a great job, and they have taken that on to the field."
Andersen said a big key is its depth. For the first time during his tenure, the line is big and has been able to shuttle as many as eight players in and out of games with little drop off in talent.
There have been surprises, though. Freshman Jordan Nielsen is better than anyone thought he would be at defensive end. Freshmen Travis Seefeldt and Havea Lasike are stout run-stoppers in the middle. Al Lapuaho offers steady senior leadership as well.
The result? An athletic group of linebackers can roam the field and make plays with little threat of being blocked by opposing offensive linemen.
Also, Utah State hasn’t been forced to blitz as often as it has in the past, making for a more balanced defense that’s wreaked havoc during the first month of the season.
"It’s been a team effort," Andersen said. "We’ve made upgrades on the line, and it’s a talented group. They have been a real key in what we’ve been able to do on that side of the ball."
An early jump
Even with a win over Air Force last week, UNLV is heading into uncharted waters Saturday. The trip to Logan will be the first away from home this season for the Rebels.
"We still have to play well against them," linebacker Zach Vigil said. "They have a lot of talent."
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.