Utah State football searching for a spark after another woeful first quarter

The Aggies have been outscored 53-0 in the first quarters of their three losses this season.

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) James Madison wide receiver Reggie Brown (1) runs downfield for a touchdown against Utah State during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Logan, Utah.

Utah State coach Blake Anderson said his team played some of the best football he’s ever seen them play Saturday night.

The problem?

It came after an opening stretch of some of the worst ball the veteran coach said he’s had to watch.

The end result: a 45-38 defeat to James Madison, a 1-3 record, and an Aggies squad desperately searching for a spark.

“We’re beyond frustrated about how we’re starting games,” Anderson said this week.

The Aggies were outscored 17-0 in the first quarter Saturday, and 53-0 in the first quarters of their three losses this season.

Anderson said he has always tried to install plays early in the week to give his team a chance to learn its script.

“We’re not doing something new or miraculous. We’ve been doing very similar things for years and had been getting different results,” the coach said. “The plans are going into the game with the first quarter in mind. It’s not random. We’ve been trying to get them as comfortable as we can, but we’re getting overpowered early.”

The solution?

Anderson suggested the possibility of restructuring practices or changing game day routines.

“I don’t have an answer for you right now,” he said. “… We’re putting our heads together as a staff to figure out how to settle this group down and get better execution out of them early in the game.”

QB change

After benching veteran quarterback Cooper Legas last week, Anderson said he was pleased with the performance of freshman McCae Hillstead.

“I think the reason we wanted to move to him was just his confidence moving through his progressions, being able to reach all the areas on the field and being comfortable in the pocket,” Anderson said. “That was an area that Coop was a little bit struggling with, to be truthful.”

Hillstead threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns Saturday. He also had three interceptions.

“We didn’t protect great all night. We struggle to keep him upright and he made some mistakes as well,” Anderson said. “He got jittery. It was tough to stay in the pocket and he threw a ball he cannot throw, that interception in the end zone.

“But he does open up the field in a way we weren’t getting before. You have to defend every player. And he is confident in his ability to get the ball where it needs to go on the field.”

Up next

USU will travel to Connecticut for a Saturday morning meeting with the Huskies.

Despite an 0-4 record, UConn poses a big challenge for the Aggies.

“They’re massive,” Anderson said. “Really, really big. I think our quickness and speed will be an advantage but size is going to be in their favor. … We’re going to have to matchup to their physicality early. Use our speed to our advantage and helpfully play with tempo and speed and fatigue them.”

It’s a problem the Aggies have had more than once this year.

“Our schedule is that way all year. It’s cut and paste,” Anderson said. “Where we’re at, what we’re able to recruit, how we have to develop, what attrition has done to us in some areas — this is our challenge. And we’ve got to get better at it. We’ve got to recruit it, build it, develop it, all of the above. Right now it’s showing, and we’ve got to find a way to overcome it.”