Adversity is a concept the Utah State football team knows all too well this season.
It started with an 0-3 start that led to the departure of coach Gary Andersen. The team’s first win still hasn’t arrived, leading to the worst start for the Aggies (0-4) in years.
To make matters worse, their starting quarterback Jason Shelley, who transferred from the University of Utah specifically to play that position, was dismissed from the team. That was a blow to their quarterback depth.
Utah State then had their game against Wyoming canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the team. The Aggies now only have three games left in their 2020 regular season.
But the proverbial cherry on top happened this past week when three starters decided to leave Utah State and go into the transfer portal. Those three are senior inside linebacker Cash Gilliam, senior safety Troy Lefeged Jr. and junior wide receiver Deven Thompkins.
Lefeged was already considered out for the season after recently undergoing surgery. All three players announced their moves on Twitter and thanked the USU football program.
When asked Monday how losing Thompkins specifically would affect the team, interim coach Frank Maile said via videoconference that the mentality of the team is “next man up” and that he was happy to answer questions about players still in the program. But he did offer an optimistic mindset.
“The culture here is still strong,” Maile said. “The kids that are here want to battle to the end. They want to grind. They’re still hungry — as crazy as that sounds with the ups and downs of this season. But I haven’t lost any hope and neither have the kids that are still in the building.”
Senior offensive lineman Demytrick Ali’ifua, who is one of the players returning to the lineup after contracting COVID-19, said he’s been focusing on a mantra of Maile’s — treating the team like family — and attempting to impart that to his teammates.
“It’s built on loyalty and respect,” Ali’ifua said. “And everybody who’s here, they’re loyal. They’ve earned our respect.”
Although Ali’ifua is one of the upperclassmen leaders on the Aggies, he’s had some help in that area.
“A lot of different leaders are emerging right now, especially with the amount of adversity that we’re going through,” Ali’ifua said.
Utah State will have to rely on its continued resilience when it faces a New Mexico team on Thanksgiving Day that is also 0-4 on the season. The Lobos feature a defense headed by Rocky Long that has forced seven turnovers and plays fast and physical. The Lobos also rank third in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed at just 81 per game.
That side of the ball hasn’t resulted in a victory for New Mexico yet this season, but it’s very much on Utah State’s radar.
“It’s a good defense, man,” Ali’ifua said. “People always struggle with it a lot.”
The good news for the Aggies is they have gotten an extra week to prepare for the Lobos after the cancellation of the Wyoming game. The additional week has brought a hyper focus on execution, Ali’ifua said.
“Whether or not you have best game plan in the world, doesn’t matter if you can’t execute,” Ali’ifua said. “It really comes down to the players. The coaches can do their best job. At the end of the day, if we’re not able to execute the way we need to execute, we won’t win.”
UTAH STATE VS. NEW MEXICO
At Maverik Stadium, Logan
Kickoff » Thursday, 5 p.m.
TV » FS1
Radio » 1280 AM, 97.5 FM, 92.3 FM
Records » Utah State 0-4; Wyoming 0-4
Series » Tied 13-13
Last meeting » Utah State 38, New Mexico 25 (Nov. 30, 2019)
About Utah State » Aggies are playing in their first Thanksgiving Day game since 1973. … With Andrew Peasely back, the starting job at QB could go to him or freshman Cooper Legas. … Game will be played without fans with the exception of players’ families. … Aggies have the least amount of penalties in the Mountain West.
About New Mexico » Lobos have lost previous three games against Utah State. … Last in the conference in field goals, making only six in 12 attempts. … QB Tevaka Tuioti will be a game-time decision after not practicing Monday. … Thursday will be the fifth straight game played away from the team’s home field. The Lobos have been based in Henderson, Nevada since Nov. 2.