Two questions that will soon build to a crescendo in the back reaches of BYU coaches’ and players’ minds — after the Cougars play Washington on Saturday — and should already be on the mental whiteboards of many future Mountain West opponents, are these: How much fear should Utah State football conjure? How good are the Aggies, really?
One more, for the skeptics: How good could they be?
Utah State finished last season with a losing record, having dropped its bowl game to New Mexico State. As a football program, the Ags are the second or third or fourth choice of some of their own players/recruits. They’ve never won an MWC title, their best opportunity coming in 2013, when they were defeated by Fresno State in the league championship game. They were picked in this year’s preseason media poll to finish fourth in the league’s Mountain Division, behind Boise State, Wyoming and Colorado State.
And then … Utah State took the field, exploding on attack, racking up all kinds of impressive numbers at least at first glance, over its first four games.
The Aggies currently rank in the nation’s top 40 in 20 different statistical categories. A sampling:
On offense, they are second in touchdown drives lasting less than a minute, having totaled nine. Only Alabama has more, at 10. They are seventh in scoring, averaging 51.5 points. They are 17th in pass-completion percentage at .689. They are 30th in passing offense, throwing for 284.5 yards per game. And they are 36th in total offense, averaging 472.5 yards.
On defense, USU is sixth in the nation in turnovers, having picked off five passes and recovered five fumbles. It is 14th in tackles for loss (8.5 per game). It’s 25th in passing defense, 21st in passing efficiency defense, and seventh in defensive TDs scored.
And, well … you get the idea. The Aggies also rank eighth in kickoff returns and 29th in punt returns.
There’s just one problem with those lofty numbers, a problem that complicates the initial questions, which we’ll get to in a minute.
What Utah State has is a quality quarterback in Jordan Love, a terrific tight end, Dax Raymond, a solid offensive line, which returned five starters and which opens holes for backs Gerold Bright and Darwin Thompson, and nice targets in Ron’quavion Tarver and Jalen Greene, a graduate transfer from USC. And an improved defense that returned nine starters.
Kicker Dominik Eberle is 8-for-8 in field goals and he tied an NCAA record with 24 points scored against New Mexico State.
After a 3-1 start, the Aggies also are riding a wave of positivity among their players.
“We have a lot of confidence just knowing how much talent we have and how good we can be when we’re all playing at a high level,” Love said. “The offense has been clicking and we’re in a good rhythm right now. It happens because everybody is getting their job done and we have a good feel for our offense, and then scoring fast is always fun. It all depends on us to execute our plays.”
Said Raymond: “The idea behind our fast offense is we know what we’re doing and they don’t. We don’t want to give the defense time to think about it. We want to get them on their heels and keep pushing.”
Push, the Aggies have.
They looked proficient in their season-opening 38-31 loss at Michigan State, a game USU most certainly could have won. Afterward, coach Matt Wells praised his players, saying he was proud of them. He quickly added, though, this bit of raised expectation: “Don’t misconstrue that to say that that is a moral victory or anything like that.”
After watching his team lose a number of close games a season ago, Wells wanted no part of satisfaction taken from defeat, even against a team such as the Spartans.
How much satisfaction he can take in beating lesser programs is another matter, and here’s the aforementioned problem.
Utah State thumped New Mexico State, 60-13, a team absent of the talent it had in that Arizona Bowl victory over the Aggies in December, and Tennessee Tech, 73-12, an outfit that can only be competitively described as hapless. The Golden Eagles are dead last in the Ohio Valley standings, and winless against Chattanooga, Kennesaw State, Jacksonville State and USU by the combined count of 204-52.
What absolute conclusions can be drawn from those wins? Not a lot. But there are big-time suspicions.
On Saturday night, the Aggies beat Air Force, a legitimate win, although the Falcons are not what they once were, years ago. In that game, USU bolted to a sizable lead, then made some errors, allowing Air Force to climb to within three points, and then closed out a 42-32 victory.
Despite the lower quality of competition Utah State has bettered thus far, this much is fair: The Aggies can flat score. They are explosive, like a heated cache of nitroglycerine. They have a star quarterback who knows his offense and who is surrounded by talented weapons. The defense is capable, too.
“Having a group of guys whose main goal is the same throughout the team makes it easier to build confidence," said senior safety Jontrell Rocquemore. "Playing at the level that we have been, week in and week out, puts no doubt in my mind that this team has what it takes to meet all of our goals and aspirations.”
And, yes, to deeply crease the faces of BYU on Oct. 5 and of every Mountain West opponent in the weeks thereafter.
Other teams' worries are Utah State's thrill.
"We all sense that something great is on its way," Eberle said. "And we are all excited for it."
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.