Logan • Aside from being a force on offense last season, the Utah State Aggies also had the capability of stopping practically anyone. In 2018, the Aggies allowed opponents just 22.2 points per game while scoring 47.5.
But it’s been a different story in 2019. Utah State opponents are scoring an average of 29 points per game while the Aggies are scoring just over 28.
And since losing junior linebacker David Woodward to an undisclosed season-ending injury in late October, the defense has struggled that much more. In five games without Woodward, who recently declared for the NFL draft, the Aggies have given up 35.8 points per game.
“When David Woodward went out, it was a hard hit to the defense — even a harder hit to the linebacker corps,” Aggies defensive coordinator Justin Ena said.
Three of those games were wins. But it’s clear that without Woodward, his team-leading 93 tackles and his nose for the ball, the Aggies, who play Kent State in the Frisco Bowl on Friday, are lacking something at that end. Ena said there was a “huge drop-off” when Woodward went down.
UTAH STATE VS. KENT STATE
At Frisco, Texas
When • Friday, 5:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN2
Even those who don’t play defense noticed the impact of not having Woodward on the field.
“It changed a lot because Woody was an All-American linebacker,” senior running back Gerold Bright said of the defense. “So the defense is centered around a guy a like that who makes pretty much every tackle he could put his hands on. If he touches you, he’s tackling you. It was a tough loss to our system defensively.”
While the Aggies didn’t try to replace Woodward per se — that’s simply not possible, several with the team said — there is a desire to replicate some of what he brings to the table. But that’s not an easy feat to achieve, redshirt junior Eric Munoz said.
“I think the biggest thing Woody did really well is he had great instincts and he just made big plays,” Munoz said. “So it’s trying to make plays that impact basically our whole team in a positive way — flipping the field, making big [tackles for loss] — but still doing it within the scheme and not leaving my gap to try to go make a play and then screwing the rest of our defense over. So I think that’s the biggest challenge.”
Still, a couple of linebackers have emerged as more-than-serviceable options at that position. Senior Kevin Meitzenheimer is up to 84 tackles on the season. Munoz, who happens to be Meitzenheimer’s best friend, has also made his mark. He recently was rewarded a scholarship after a stellar performance against Wyoming, where he made 13 tackles and two interceptions.
Bright praised how Meitzenheimer and Munoz have stepped up in Woodward’s absence and said their relationship off the field makes them more accountable to each other on the field.
“They know that they need to make tackles and they need to make plays so that we can be great defensively to help the offense and then help the special teams so we can mold together as one,” Bright said.
Aggie defensive end Jacoby Wildman said he did not see any of his teammates on the defense “freaking out” when it became clear that Woodward wouldn’t be back this season. When adversity hit, he said, both the players and the coaches handled the situation well.
Aggies coach Gary Andersen said the coaches somewhat adjusted the defensive schemes when Woodward went down, but Ena said he thought changing everything would put too much pressure on other players.
So while some details have changed with Woodward out of the lineup, the basic defensive principles have stayed the same. Munoz said as long as the defense plays as a unit, it should be just fine despite missing its most important player.
“When all 11 guys are doing their job and they’re aligned correctly, I think we have a really good defense,” Munoz said. “[We’ll] see how we do in the bowl game.”