A year ago, the Utah State football team opened its season on the road against a Big Ten powerhouse ranked No. 9 in the country.
This Friday, the Aggies open their season on the road … against a Big Ten powerhouse … ranked No. 11 in the country.
So, what’s to keep this matchup with Michigan State from turning out the same way the 2017 tilt with Wisconsin did — when USU scored the game’s first 10 points, was tied at halftime, but fell apart after the break en route to a 59-10 defeat?
“The difference with us is we don’t have nearly as many first-year starters going into the game as we did last year. The first snap was over the quarterback’s head. What a disaster. Hopefully, we can avoid that this year,” Aggies coach Matt Wells said at Monday’s weekly news conference in Logan. “We have more experienced players. Now, does that lead to better play and more points and all that stuff? Obviously, that remains to be seen. But, we’re not nearly as inexperienced going into the game as we were last year.”
True enough. Utah State had 26 first-time starters a year ago (fourth most in the nation), but its 18 returning offensive and defensive starters this year rank as the third-most in the nation.
So it figures, of course, that one of the programs tied for the most, with 19, is Michigan State.
Nine of those come on the defensive side. Despite the Spartans’ own inexperience a year ago, they ranked second in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense (95.3 yards per game), seventh in total defense (297.6 ypg), 17th in pass efficiency defense (113.5 rating), 18th in third-down defense (.328), and 19th in scoring defense (20.0 ppg).
“They have some big boys up front. They have some nice linebackers, so it’s going to be a war in those trenches come Friday night,” noted USU senior offensive lineman Rob Castaneda.
“That front seven is maybe the best we’ll see this year,” Wells agreed.
MSU is even more experienced on the offensive side, where it returns 10 starters from a year ago (every position except center), and those returning players equate to 100 percent of its passing yards, 81 percent of its receiving yards and 71 percent of its rushing yards.
So, then, how does Utah State — which finished 6-7 last year; which is 5-55 all-time against Associated Press Top 25 teams; which has never beaten a team ranked higher than No. 18 — go into the 75,005-capacity Spartan Stadium and compete with a team that went 10-3 last year, finished ranked No. 15 in the country, and has gone 11-0 in home openers under coach Mark Dantonio?
Do the Aggies have any kind of edge at all?
“The bull mascot may have an advantage,” Wells quipped, before conceding USU’s best chance may come down to “don’t turn the ball over” and hope that his offense that averaged 30.2 ppg and 397.4 ypg last year is fast and efficient enough to “wear them out a little bit and get them tired.”
Though his team enters the schools’ first-ever matchup as a 23.5-point favorite, Dantonio is hardly taking the Aggies lightly, praising Utah State as a “total football team” at his weekly news conference in East Lansing on Tuesday — noting the special teams unit blocked four punts last year, pointing out that the defense ranked sixth in the nation with 29 forced turnovers, and echoing Wells in saying USU’s no-huddle offense is “going as fast as anybody in the country.
“I’m sure they'll come here ready to play, so it will be exciting,” Dantonio added.
For his part, Castaneda, the USU offensive lineman, offered that he is “more prepared than I ever have been in my entire life,” which is just what Wells wants to hear. With the team believing a Mountain West Conference championship is an attainable goal, setting the proper tone for the remainder of the season need not be dependent upon Friday’s final score against the Spartans.
Asked what he wants people to take away from watching USU games this year, Wells rattled off a laundry list of imperatives for big-picture success.
“That this team comes and plays with a tremendous amount of passion. They play with a chip on their shoulder. They play extremely hard. They’re tough and they’re physical,” he said. “On top of that, can we execute? Can we take care of the football? Can we be mentally disciplined enough to not have too many penalties? … All of those things. Then, you have the chemistry and the leadership. … If those aspects rise, then you’ll see a team that wins a lot of games.”
Utah State at No. 11 Michigan State
At Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
Kickoff • Friday, 5 p.m. MDT
TV • Big Ten Network
Radio • 1280 AM/97.5 FM (Salt Lake City); 92.3 FM (Logan)
Last meeting • First meeting
About Utah State • The Aggies finished 6-7 last season following a 26-20 overtime loss to New Mexico State in the Arizona Bowl. … USU returns 18 starters from last season — third-most in the nation behind only Florida and Michigan State. … Utah State is one of just 18 Football Bowl Subdivision programs to return all five of its starters on the offensive line from 2017. … USU allowed 182.5 passing yards per game in 2017 to rank 19th in the nation. … The Aggies are 3-7 all-time in games played in August, including a 1-5 road record. This will be USU’s fifth game played on Aug. 31.
About Michigan State • The Spartans beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl to finish last season with a 10-3 record and ranked No. 15 in The Associated Press Top 25. … Senior running back LJ Scott is looking to become the third player in school history to lead the Spartans in rushing for four straight seasons. … Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 2,793 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year, and also led the team in rushing through five games. … Mark Dantonio is 100-45 in 11 seasons as the Spartans' head coach. … MSU ranks ninth among all FBS teams with 49 combined wins over the past five seasons.