Kragthorpe: Utah State asks even more of its defense vs. Jordan Lynch
Matt Wells made sure Utah State's football program would keep moving forward by building his defensive staff backward.
After succeeding Gary Andersen as the Aggies' coach last December, Wells kept three position coaches on defense. And then he looked for a coordinator, with Dave Aranda having accompanied Andersen to Wisconsin. The job description came with a scheme already in place, so Todd Orlando had to be willing to adapt to USU's way of doing things not the other way around.
That strategy worked. Orlando's defense is ranked No. 12 in the country, entering Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl vs. Northern Illinois at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Huskies feature quarterback Jordan Lynch, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. So this will be a very good test for an Aggie defense that has been asked to do a lot, ever since USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton was injured in early October.
Four other season-ending injuries to starters have greatly reduced the USU offensive's capability, so the Aggie defense basically will have to win this game.
And winning is important to USU. With a loss, the Aggies would finish 8-6 with consecutive defeats, having lost to Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game. That's the tradeoff for winning a division title. But if they could beat the best opponent they've ever faced in a bowl game, they'll have produced a phenomenal season in the transition from Andersen to Wells and from Aranda to Orlando.
The defense delivered in November by holding Hawaii, Colorado State and Wyoming to a total of 17 points. The Aggies allowed 24 points to Fresno State in the MW title game, but that was a respectable performance against quarterback Derek Carr and the Bulldogs' potent offense.
Now, here comes Lynch. He's an outstanding runner and passer, an upgraded version of BYU's Taysom Hill. USU held Hill to 14 net yards on nine carries including a 24-yard run, as the Aggies shut him down on the ground for much of the night. The tradeoff was that Hill hurt them through the air, with 278 passing yards and three touchdowns in BYU's 31-14 victory (the Cougars also scored a defensive touchdown).
The Huskies present their own set of challenges. "Schematically, they're very different from what we've seen," Orlando said.
The Aggies have played solidly all season, although they gave up 30 and 34 points, respectively, in losses to Utah and Boise State. Orlando succeeded by taking Aranda's scheme and giving it his own twists, maximizing the abilities of his players. With linebackers Jake Doughty, Kyler Fackrell and Zach Vigil in place, Orlando did not mess too much with a good thing and Wells wouldn't let him do so.
The key was "his willingness to come into a situation, recognize that it was already pretty good, recognize that there are already good players here, learn the system, wrap his arms around it, get the other defensive guys to believe in him and put his spin on it," Wells said. "And the product is very good."
Wells credits Orlando with being both humble and confident enough to blend in well. Orlando said the issue was simply "one person learning it or 50 or 60 people learning it," giving him an easy choice. He also discovered that the game-day calls he likes were already in the package.
Orlando's approach is somewhat more aggressive than Aranda's. "He likes to blitz and put pressure on a quarterback to get a clock in his head," Doughty said.
So the Aggies will come after Lynch whenever Northern Illinois faces third-and-long plays. The trick, of course, is getting the Huskies into such situations.