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Utah State football working with many new parts vs. Wyoming

Air Force fullback Timothy Jackson, center, runs for a short gain as Utah State safety Troy Lefeged Jr., left, and defensive tackle Caden Andersen come in to make the stop in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Lefeged last week had shoulder surgery that will end his 2020 season. (AP File Photo/David Zalubowski)

With its game last week canceled because its opponent had too many cases of COVID-19, the Wyoming football team will have 10 days to prepare to play Utah State on Thursday. Conversely, the Aggies will have just four days to turn around from Saturday’s loss to Fresno State, and one of those is a travel day.

The Cowboys might not have as much of an advantage in advanced scouting as they appear to, though. Especially since these days it’s anyone’s guess who will take the field for USU.

Cooper Legas, a redshirt freshman who hasn’t played a collegiate snap, will take over as the Aggies' signal caller Thursday. Replacing starter Jason Shelley, who was dismissed from the team Sunday, Legas will be at least the 24th player making his debut for USU in the past four weeks. In addition, the team will be experimenting with replacements for senior safety Troy Lefeged Jr., who last week underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
Even the team’s coach, Frank Maile, has only been at the helm for one game this season. He was named interim head coach after USU and Gary Andersen parted ways last week after the Aggies got off to a dismal 0-3 start.

Still, Maile is trying to keep things positive. At a press conference Monday, he said his rapidly rotating rotation gives the Aggies more mystique.

“I think it’s a two-way street, you know, them trying to prepare for us and seeing new faces, new numbers as they’re checking us out pregame,” Maile said. “And it’s the same thing for us. So if you’re always counting on somebody to be in the game and you don’t see 'em, and that changes your mind mentally about what you’re about to do with the game plan, I think that’s worse than not just preparing your guys fundamentally to be sound.”

Coaches expected playing in a pandemic would produce more uncertainty around lineups, and some of USU’s variances can be attributed to that.

At quarterback, for example, Andersen said backup Andrew Peasley would be seeing some intermittent time on the field in relief of Shelley. He would have been the logical choice to replace Shelley, a junior who transferred this season from Utah, after Maile removed Shelley for an undisclosed team violation. But Peasley tested positive for COVID-19 last week and is unavailable against Wyoming. That makes the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Legas, who led Orem High to 4A state championships in 2017 and 2018, the next man up.

Maile said Legas has proven he’s a winner, not just on the football field, but on the wrestling mat, where he had no one else to lean on. Legas won a state championship in that sport his senior year at Orem as well as one in javelin, where he had the farthest throw across all classifications.

“You can kind of fudge a little bit with football because it’s a team sport. But when you’re talking about wrestling and the mentality it takes to win a championship in wrestling, that’s an individual sport where you call for no help and you can’t turn to anybody,” Maile said. “And so Cooper’s a winner at the end of the day. And that’s what we’re looking forward to: his leadership and his competitiveness to lead the Aggies to a ‘W.’ ”

If Legas can get the Aggies their first win of the season this week, even if it is against a 1-2 Cowboys team, he’ll earn a spot in Aggies lore. Until this season, only three times in the past 25 years has a quarterback made his starting debut in his first game with the Aggies. Shelley made the fourth and Legas will be the fifth. (Redshirt freshman Josh Calvin, Legas' backup, will be the sixth should anything happen, which isn’t far-fetched this season).

In addition, Legas will be taking over an offense that’s last in the Mountain West in total yards (971) and total points (45). The Aggies trail the Cowboys in both categories (1,219 and 89, respectively) despite having played one more game. Plus, Legas will be leading the charge with the 13th youngest squad in the nation. Just more than 65% of USU’s players are underclassmen, and between COVID and injuries, most of them are seeing playing time.

On defense, Lefeged’s departure doesn’t help USU’s situation. He started every game in 2019 and was second on the team in sacks (2), forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (2). This season he recorded 13 total tackles — 10 solo — and a pass breakup in two games.

The Aggies have incentive to press on, though. One is to try to get senior Savon Scarver at least one more kickoff return for a touchdown. Scarver notched his sixth Saturday against Fresno State, moving him to a tie for fifth in NCAA history. One more and he’d be tied for the record. Two and it would be his own.

Scarver said his teammates, whoever they happen to be on any given game day, are the ones who can make that happen. The Aggies, he said, have plenty of fight left.

“We are all hunters. We are all hungry. We are all still hunting,” Scarver said. “And I can’t say enough how hard we work. So we’re just going to keep working hard. That’s all we can do, and keep getting better every day because hunters are always hungry. So when it’s time to hunt, we’re going to go hunting.”

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