The loss against Boise State was ugly. The loss against San Diego State was worse. And Utah State is trying to avoid going 0-3 to start a season that consists of only eight games.
But that could be a tall order Thursday against the Nevada Wolf Pack (2-0), who are undefeated on the season and have a dynamic quarterback in sophomore Carson Strong. He leads an offense that average 496.5 yards per game, 385 of which coming from the passing game.
“I always say a great quarterback has the ability to beat you with his arm, his legs and his mind, and this young man as been able to do that very well this year,” Aggies coach Gary Andersen said of Strong. “It’s been crazy to watch how productive he is. He’s a special player.”
In its first two games, Utah State faced teams that liked to run the ball more. In both losses, Andersen pointed to the lack of this team’s ability to execute tackles, while also getting outplayed from a physicality standpoint. He called Sunday’s effort against the Aztecs “pathetic” and “embarrassing.”
Now that the Aggies are going against a more passing-oriented team in Nevada, defensive coordinator Frank Maile said the key is getting Strong off balance.
“If we can disrupt the quarterback in his game, his rhythm and his timing with this receivers, it’ll pay huge dividends for us,” Maile said.
But the Aggies have a short week of preparation, and could not practice Tuesday due to the NCAA prohibiting practices and games for Division I programs on Election Day. Andersen said the team practiced Sunday.
Maile said that in light of the shortened schedule this week, his focus is simplifying the defensive and sharpening the fundamentals on that side of the ball. He said the defensive issues the past two weeks have been “self-inflicted.”
“If we could just get better at what we do and how we do things, I think you’re going to like what you see on Thursday,” Maile said. “For us, it’s always about improving every single week. We have to do a better job as coaches of making sure we simplify that in a short week and getting our guys to continue to play hard, play fast and execute the calls.”
The Aggies have been subpar on both sides of the ball this season. They’re second to last in the conference in total offense (292.3 yards per game) and total defensive (501.3 yards allowed per game). They’re also last in the Mountain West in points per game (10) and points per game allowed (40).
While Andersen acknowledged that Utah State hasn’t been competitive on the field so far this season, he specified that it’s not because the team isn’t trying.
“The competitiveness of this team as far as effort, want-to, preparation, care factor — that’s all been there,” Andersen said.
Junior quarterback Jason Shelley, who transferred from the University of Utah and won the starting spot, has struggled so far this season. He’s completed just 56.2% of his passes through two games.
Offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder said he wants to get Shelley going early on Thursday and get the ball further downfield.
“I feel like there’s been a little bit of a roof on our throwing game right now. We’re getting bottled in,” Reeder said. “So [the goal is] allowing him to stretch the field and get the ball to some of the fast guys we have on the outside and show the defense that we can take some shots.”
UTAH STATE AT NEVADA
At Mackay Stadium, Reno, Nev.
Kickoff » Thursday, 5 p.m. MST
TV » FS1
Radio » 1280 AM, 97.5 FM, 92.3 FM
Records » Utah State 0-2; Nevada 2-0
All-time series » Nevada leads 18-7
Last meeting » Utah State 36, Nevada 10 (Oct. 19, 2019)
About Utah State » The Aggies are one of only two overall winless teams in the Mountain West. … Have won three of the previous four games against the Wolf Pack, but lost 38-37 the last time they traveled Nevada. … Quarterback Jason Shelley ranks 10th in the conference in passing efficiency (86.3). … USU is 19-32-4 (.382) all time in games played on Thursday.
About Nevada » Sophomore quarterback Carson Strong hasn’t thrown an interception in 230 passing attempts. … Ranks first in the conference in passing offense (385 yards per game). … Scored 37 points in both games this season. … Wolf Pack allow slightly more rushing yards to opponents than they gains (298 vs. 286).