Utah State football coach Gary Andersen said it’s unsettling to pass by the place the wagon wheel should be and realize it won’t reside there for at least another year after the Aggies’ loss to BYU last week.
How about filling the void with the Mountain West Conference trophy?
While it was an emotional blow, USU’s loss to its in-state rival had no bearing on its position in the conference. With just one MWC loss, to Air Force Academy, behind them and four straight conference games ahead of them, the Aggies still have a chance to hoist some hardware — mathematically at least.
“We have four games left that are all guaranteed, and we’ll see what we get done to move onto another one as we go through time,” Andersen said. “We’re in the fight, and we’re in the race. Our guys will be excited to come back and battle, which they will."
That battle begins Saturday when the team travels to California to take on Fresno State, which finds itself in a similar predicament. The defending MWC champion Bulldogs, like USU, are 4-4 overall, though Fresno State is carrying a 2-2 conference record. It also lost to Air Force as well as Colorado State, a team the Aggies defeated 34-24.
This is a different USU team than that one, however. The Aggies have suffered some critical personnel losses, none more impactful than that of junior linebacker David Woodward. Woodward, who has 93 tackles on the season and forced two fumbles against CSU, recovering one, missed the BYU game and has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury. Andersen said Woodward will travel with the team to help mentor his young replacements, such as redshirt freshman Elijah Shelton, a Highland High product.
“It’s easy to say, OK, next man up. But there’s some stuff that goes into that too, especially when it’s a freshman who jumps in there and has to go play,” Andersen said Thursday on his weekly radio show on 1280 The Zone. “It does affect what you’re trying to do. You’re asking them to learn a complex plan but it won’t be as complex. It flat out won’t be as complex.”
If USU wants proof that it can get the job done with a young squad, it needs to look no further than across the field at Fresno State. The Bulldogs start seven freshmen, the second most in the nation. That includes Evan Williams, this week’s Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week. They also are tied for fifth in the nation in turnovers forced per game (2.25), which could be a problem for an Aggies offense that turned the ball over five times against BYU.
Tight end Caleb Repp said he feels this is the game the struggling USU offense will turn things around.
“For a little bit we strayed away from what we are known for doing and what we like to do. We came back to that,” Repp said during a radio interview with The Zone. “Last week it was just the execution. It’s pretty tough to win the game with several turnovers. It’s just taking care of the ball. I think we’ll get back to that this week.”
The Bulldogs’ offense tends to find the most success with its rushing game. Junior Ronnie Rivers is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and has scored twice in each of the past three games, when the team is averaging 246 yards on the ground. Quarterback Jorge Reyna is 164 for 260 with six interceptions and 11 touchdown strikes on the season.
USU still has MWC Mountain Division leader Boise State (7-1, 4-0) left on its schedule, as well as Wyoming (6-2, 3-1) and New Mexico (2-7, 0-5). Fresno State trails San Diego State (7-1, 4-1) in the West Division with games against the No. 24-ranked Aztecs — whom the Aggies beat in their conference opener — Nevada (5-4, 2-3) and San Jose State (4-5, 1-4) remaining.
UTAH STATE AT FRESNO STATE
At Bulldog Stadium, Fresno, Calif.
Kickoff » Saturday, 5 p.m. MST
TV » CBS Sports Network
Radio » 1280 AM, 92.3 FM, 97.5 FM
Records » USU 4-4 (3-1 MWC), FSU 4-4 (2-2 MWC)
All-time series » FSU leads 17-12-1
Last meeting » USU 38, FSU 20 (Oct. 22, 2016)
About USU » The Aggies dropped their second straight game in a home loss to BYU last Saturday. … The last time USU lost three games in a row was during the 2016 season, when it finished the year on a five-game losing streak. ... The Aggies are tied for third in the MWC Mountain Division behind Boise State and Air Force. … USU junior linebacker David Woodward has been ruled out the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury.
About FSU » The Bulldogs have lost their last two MWC games against USU. … Fresno State is coming off of a 41-38 come-from-behind win over Hawaii. Jalen Cropp threw a 36-yard TD pass, his only pass of the season, to start the scoring. … Against Hawaii, the Bulldogs produced a season-high 514 yards of offense. … Fresno State starts seven freshmen, the second most in the FBS behind Alabama (9).