This week, their head coach dubbed them the “no-name” crew.
Now nearing the end of what has been one of the best, most exhilarating, most scoreboard melting regular seasons in the history of Utah State football, these players have a final exam Saturday evening on the blue turf. This no-name group is tasked with slowing, statistically, the most prolific quarterback in Mountain West Conference history in what will be likely the toughest road environment they face in 2018.
The Mountain division title is on the line in Boise, where the No. 14-ranked Utah State Aggies face No. 21 Boise State. Storylines are simple. Two dynamic go-go-go offenses and two defenses needing to use every inch to slow one another down. Matt Wells this week said this week his defensive outfit has embraced a “no-name defense” kind of mentality.
“It’s not about one guy, it’s not about one hero, one superstar,” Wells said.
So far, that’s been working just fine.
USU’s defense leads college football in passes intercepted in 2018 with 18 and defensive touchdowns with six. Sure, the offense grabs headlines because this is the era of football we’re living in. But in the games where the offense wasn’t clicking and things slowed to a grinding pace, it has been the Aggie defense that’s assumed the reins in wins against Air Force and Wyoming. In last week’s nail-biting win at Colorado State, USU had two pick-6 returns for touchdowns.
“You can’t ignore that,” Wells said.
Nobody is. Least of all, Boise State.
Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin said he was able to watch USU’s game on TV last Saturday and mentioned that the Aggies often make opponents pay for mistakes. Pay dearly.
“They’re playing well, they’re playing fast and they have been this entire year. They’re very opportunistic with their turnovers and they were last game,” Harsin said this week. “I think that’s what good defenses do.”
NO. 14 UTAH STATE AT NO. 21 BOISE STATE
When • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Facing Boise State QB Brett Rypien and his band of tall, rangy, athletic receivers will be made more difficult Saturday after USU lost another starting defensive back last weekend. Senior corner back Deante Fortenberry will miss the rest of the season after being carted off at Colorado State, Wells said. This comes a few weeks after safety Shaq Bond suffered a season-ending injury, too.
“He’s not a thrower — he can pass it,” Wells said of Rypien, now the MWC’s all-time passing leader. “He’s tough, man.”
First order of business is ensuring that USU can get to Rypien and disrupt his timing and comfort in the pocket. The Aggies struggled to get home against Colorado State, allowing the Rams to pile on the yardage through the air, despite turnovers that turned to points.
“It’s a big part of what we try to do on defense,” senior linebacker Chase Christiansen said. “When we don’t get to the quarterback, it puts a lot of pressure on our DB’s. When we’ve played really well, that’s what we’ve done, is get to the quarterback.”
First-year defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who arrived in Logan after spending four years at Arizona State, has helped transform the Aggie defense into a perfect partner for one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country. Fans are quick to point out, too, that it’s not always the offense running away from opponents on its own. USU also leads the country in non-offensive touchdowns with 10.
There might not be a superstar on this defense, but it appears there’s undoubtedly one in the making in sophomore linebacker David Woodward. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker finished with 20 tackles in the win against Colorado State. Harsin singled Woodward out this week as a linchpin for the Aggies.
“In my opinion,” Christiansen said, “he’s going to be a draft pick one day.”
Wells, tongue-in-cheek, said Woodward’s 20-tackle performance to keep USU’s 10-1 season on track for a MWC title apparently wasn’t up to part to win the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
“So we’ll continue to be a no-name defense,” Wells said, “and that’s perfectly fine for those guys. We’ll have another guy or two step up in the secondary. I’m confident our coaches will get them well-prepared.”