Considering all they have in common, it makes sense that Utah State coach Gary Andersen and San Diego State coach Brady Hoke have similar programs.
“We have a lot of the same beliefs, quite frankly,” Andersen said, “which makes it very easy for us to be able to have a relationship.”
Hoke and Andersen have taken nearly parallel paths to get to Saturday’s Mountain West Conference game at Maverik Stadium, which will be the Aggies' home opener. Both are in their second stints as head coach with their respective teams after starting their first terms in 2009. Both have defensive backgrounds, so naturally both will be pinning their success Saturday on the performance of that unit. However, they’ll each also be counting on the ability of their offenses to get the ground game going.
So with all those similarities, what makes the Aztecs 7.5-point favorites over the Aggies? Hint: It has nothing to do with their coaches.
It all boils down to experience.
SDSU returns 17 players who have started 10 or more games: nine on its vaunted defense and eight on offense. Among them is Caden McDonald, a junior linebacker who was named the MW Defensive Player of the Week after recording a career-high eight tackles and 2.5 sacks in a 34-6 drubbing of UNLV in San Diego last weekend. The Aztecs also bring back senior safety Tariq Thompson, for whom Andersen had high praise.
“A lot of young men have the talent that are on these teams that we play, but not all of them play the game the way it’s supposed to be played from a standpoint of just relentless effort and working to be a technician and being in the right place. And from what I see, he’s very prideful in that,” the coach said. “That comes from experience, that comes from want-to, it comes from film study. He’s great.”
Utah State, meanwhile, is in the midst of a youth movement. It put seven first-time starters on the field in last week’s season-opening loss to Boise State. It also started 15 players who previously hadn’t played a single down for the Aggies.
That’s why, before the MW did away with divisions during the COVID-19-shortened season, the Aztecs were picked to win the West Division. And, it’s why USU was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain Division and, by some counts, ninth overall in the conference.
The Aggies have two things working in their favor, however.
For one, they know they can beat the Aztecs. Last year they won 23-17 on the road, snapping a 10-game losing streak to SDSU. Beating a team coached by Rocky Long, the coach with the most all-time wins in MW history and Hoke’s predecessor and preceder, marked one the Aggies' biggest victories of the season.
“That built a lot of confidence for us and helped propel us throughout the season,” junior wide receiver Deven Thompkins said. “So if we come back with the same intensity that we had last year, we’ll be good.”
Secondly, the Aggies theoretically are closing the gap on SDSU in terms of experience each time they step on the field in a live-action situation.
“There’s nothing like playing,” Andersen said. “Practice is work, but there is absolutely nothing like playing games to be able to understand and feel exactly what it’s all about.”
But the young and inexperienced players don’t have much time to waste playing catch-up. With the conference using winning percentages, rather than division champions, to determine who reaches the championship game, a loss to SDSU could be a huge hit to the Aggies' aspirations.
“Everybody has to step up,” senior linebacker Kevin Metzenheimer said. "We have to get out of this mentality of ‘Messing up is OK. We have the next play,’ or ‘Missed assignment? It’s OK.’ We have to do it right now.
“Our mentality has to change in that everybody has to be held accountable no matter if you’re a freshman or a senior.”
San Diego State at Utah State
At Maverik Stadium, Logan
Kickoff » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV » CBSSN
Radio » 1280 AM, 97.5 FM, 92.3 FM
Records » Utah State 0-1; SDSU 1-0
All-time series » SDSU leads 12-2
Last meeting » Utah State 23, SDSU 17 (Sept. 21, 2019)
About Utah State » Aggies will play in front of fans for the first time this season. Maverik Stadium will be filled to 22% capacity. … USU’s home opener is its latest since 1929, when the team’s first game in Logan was on Nov. 9. … The Aggies were without several key players against Boise State, including MW Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year Savon Scarver and senior safety Troy Lefeged Jr. It is unclear if they will be available Saturday.
About SDSU » Brady Hoke is in the first year of his second stint as head coach of the Aztecs. He was coach from 2009-10 and was the team’s defensive coordinator last year. … SDSU will also be playing in front of live fans for the first time this season. … The Aztecs won back-to-back MW Championships in 2015 and 2016, their last year to reach the championship game.