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LOGAN -- For the first time in 14 years, it is Utah State's football team grabbing the spotlight in late December in Cache Valley.
The Aggies are bowling for the first time since 1997 and happen to be in a familiar place: Bronco Stadium on the campus of Boise State University, the site of USU's last bowl game appearance; the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl.
While the Aggies are playing in the same location as the Humanitarian Bowl, albeit under the moniker of the "Famous Idaho Potato Bowl", the opponent this time around will be the Ohio Bobcats of the Mid-American Conference.
This will be only the second matchup ever between the two schools, as their only other matchup ended in a 5-0 Aggie victory back in 1994.
With a record of 9-4 this season and an appearance in the MAC Championship game, the Bobcats will not be an easy out for the Aggies.
As the excitement builds across the state of Utah and in Boise, Idaho for the postseason, let's take a look at five storylines to watch for this coming Saturday:
1. USU's excitement against Ohio's bowl experience.
The last time Utah State was in a bowl game, many of the Aggies players were in elementary school. Some of them weren't even eligible to go to preschool yet.
For the Ohio Bobcats, the last time they were in a bowl game was 364 days ago. The Bobcats lost that game to Troy University in the New Orleans Bowl. Before that, Ohio lost to Marshall 21-17 in the 2009 Little Caesers Pizza Bowl and even prior to that, the Bobcats lost to Southern Miss 28-7 in the GMAC Bowl.
If you include this season, Ohio will have played in four bowl games in six years. Many of those players from those teams remain on the roster and they are hungry for the wins that have eluded them in their previous three opportunities in bowl games.
Utah State comes into territory not ever seen by anyone on the coaching staff or the roster. This is a completely new ballgame for the WAC's second-best team. The excitement surrounding the program hasn't been seen in a long time, which is something that the players know is special. The players can build on this special feeling on Saturday.
What remains to be seen is how the players react come game time. Ohio definitely holds the edge when it comes to playing in the spotlight, even though the Bobcats have never won a bowl game, however, how will Utah State's energy affect them on the field? Will it be positive energy that leads the Aggies to play aggressively and force turnovers? Or will it be a detriment to the focus of the team?
Utah State has had to focus consistently the past six weeks to even make it to this point. Getting to a bowl game and playing well in it should be the pinnacle of focus for this Aggies team.
2. The advantage of the "Smurf-Turf" for Utah State.
Bronco Stadium has not been friendly to the Aggies in recent memory. However, that would be because Utah State played the powerhouse Boise State Broncos and 1997 Humanitarian Bowl opponent Cincinnati, both of whom have beaten Utah State in years past.
This time around, the Aggies are playing a team that has only seen the famed "Smurf-Turf" on television. Utah State will be playing for the eighth time in school history on Boise State's blue field, while Ohio will be playing on the turf for the first time ever.
Many of these Aggies players have played in Bronco Stadium before and they know now how to adjust to the playing conditions and also the loudness of the crowd.
Another advantage that Utah State should have is the crowd. Logan is much closer to Boise than Athens, Ohio. While the Bobcats have a great program, how many of their fans will travel to Boise?
With the game nearly sold out, the crowd at the game should be much like the crowd's that the Aggies have faced in years past against Boise State. One would think as well that with the closer proximity of Boise to Logan, many Utah State fans will be in attendance.
Any advantage gained in a bowl game could turn out to be a huge advantage and change the outcome of the game.
3. The battle of the headsets on the sidelines.
If you were to tell the average fan before the Hawaii game on Nov. 5th that Utah State would be bowl eligible by season's end, they probably would have laughed at you.
Fast forward six weeks.
The Aggies are gunning for their first eight-win season since 1974 after running off five straight wins with former backup quarterback Adam Kennedy under center.
Whatever it was that head coach Gary Andersen did to get the Aggies to this point, he needs to keep doing it for at least one more Saturday in order to best his coaching counterpart on the other sideline.
His opponent on the headset this Saturday: Frank Solich.
Yes, that Frank Solich.
The man who took over the powerhouse Nebraska Cornhuskers from legendary coach Tom Osbourne back in 1997 and won two Big XII Coach of the Year awards. The man who led Nebraska to the 2001 National Championship game and winner of the 1999 Big XII Championship game against Texas. And yes, the man who was fired after six consecutive bowl appearances because only winning nine games in a season wasn't enough for the fans living in the football-crazed state of Nebraska.
Solich is in his seventh season coaching at Ohio University. Since his time in Athens, the Bobcats have gone 49-40, including a 9-5 campaign in Solich's second season as coach. Since that 9-5 season in 2006, Ohio has had one losing record at 4-8 in 2008.
This is a team, and a coach, that knows how to win. Solich has been near the highest point of coaching that one can achieve. The man knows how to coach.
Will this intimidate Gary Andersen? Absolutely not. Andersen is primed and ready for his first bowl game as head coach and is ready to take on a coach of Solich's caliber.
Andersen has not been afraid to make the big play calls this season. Expect a wildly entertaining game between these two teams as both coaches try to outduel each other from the sidelines.
4. Ohio's high-powered offense against a spotty-at- times Utah State defense.
The Ohio Bobcats are no slouch of a team offensively. Look at these statistics:
- 251.2 passing yards per game, 39th in the nation.
- 201.9 rushing yards per game, 25th in the nation.
- 31.0 points per game, 38th in the nation.
Now, compare this to Utah State's defensive statistics:
- 240.0 passing yards per game, 76th in the nation.
- 128.0 rushing yards per game, 32nd in the nation.
- 28.3 points against per game, 73rd in the nation.
Obviously, looking solely at statistics, the Aggies do fairly well at stopping the run. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher have made this their number one priority and it has shown in the Utah State record books.
However, the Aggies just flat-out have issues with pass defense. Quarterback after quarterback has burned through the Aggies porous secondary game after game this season. As much as Aggie fans wish this would end, it might be worse this time around with Ohio's Tyler Tettleton, a multi-faceted offensive threat, lining up under center for the Bobcats on Saturday.
Tettleton set 12 single-season records at Ohio this year. He accounted for 35 total touchdowns (26 passing; nine rushing) and 3,709 yards of total offense. He has 627 yards rushing on 150 carries and is the first Bobcat player to pass for over 3,000 yards in a single season. The sophomore signal-caller absolutely loves the Ohio offense.
It also helps that Tettleton has some excellent receivers to catch his passes. Senior WR LaVon Brazill has 64 receptions for a school-record 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns while Riley Dunlop has 40 catches for 551 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
As well, let's not forget about senior RB/KR Donte Harden, who has 939 yards rushing this year and is only 67-yards shy of becoming the all-time single season leader in total yards. Harden is a definite threat on offense for the Bobcats.
Combining Harden with sophomores Ryan Boykin and Beau Blankenship create a tough test of the Aggies' run defense as well. Those three have combined for 1,784 yards and seven touchdowns for the Bobcats.
Ohio overall has racked up 500 or more total yards of offense in three of their past six games. No matter who you play, that is quite the feat.
Hopefully, the Aggies secondary will show up to play on Saturday and make life difficult on Tettleton's pass catchers and force the Bobcats to run the ball more than they would like. Even though Ohio's rushing attack ranks in the Top 25 in the nation, the Aggies defense has stood tall throughout the season against the run and will look to frustrate that phase of the Bobcats offense.
5. Utah State's rushing attack against the stiff Ohio Bobcat run defense.
Utah State's offense can blow you away and frustrate you at the same time. Despite the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offense of the Aggies, they know how to put up points on the board. Look at these statistics:
- 181.2 passing yards per game, 95th in the nation.
- 277.5 rushing yards per game, 6th in the nation.
- 34.5 points per game, 21st in the nation.
Now, compare this to the Bobcats defensive statistics:
- 228.5 passing yards per game, 67th in the nation.
- 126.4 rushing yards per game, 30th in the nation.
- 22.1 points against per game, 31st in the nation.
While both teams can stop the run fairly well, the Bobcats do a much better job at preventing points from being scored. It also seems though that Ohio's secondary seems to have issues defending the ball much like Utah State, albeit at a lesser rate.
As a result, Adam Kennedy could get a lot of face time on Saturday. The junior quarterback has really revived the once-struggling Utah State offense with his arm, an arm that offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin trusts.
Even though the statistics suggest that Utah State struggles throwing the football, when Kennedy has been given the chance to throw it, he has succeeded. Kennedy has completed 65 of 92 passes for 909 yards with 10 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He has proven that the Aggies have more than just running backs powering the offense.
Utah State will get their yards on the ground as it will be difficult for Ohio to deny Robert Turbin, Kerwynn Williams, and Michael Smith the large amount of yards they gain week-in and week-out. However, will it be the amount that we are used to seeing?
Ohio linebacker Noah Keller leads the Bobcat defense with 155 total tackles, placing him on Ohio's Top 10 All-Time Tackles list. Expect him to be a force on the Bobcats stingy defensive front-seven.
With the Aggies' offense built around the run game, expect Ohio to key on that aspect of offensive production and try to force Kennedy to beat them down the field with his receiving corps.
As exciting as it is to see the ball being thrown downfield, don't forget that the Aggies tend to switch back-and-forth between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mode, meaning that USU's play-calling changes quickly from conservative to aggressive and back.
We have seen throughout the season how well Utah State plays when they are aggressive and how poorly they play when conservative play-calling is utilized. It can be very frustrating as a fan to see this "style" of offensive coordinating take place. Let's hope that Baldwin will open up the aggressive offense we have seen at times this season by throwing the ball from end-zone to end-zone instead of sideline to sideline.
BONUS:With this being the postseason, many media outlets will be covering, and are covering, the 35-game bowl schedule. Fortunately for Utah State, they play in the second bowl game of the postseason on national television and are the only game in the Saturday afternoon time-slot. While the media coverage on television is excellent, the Aggies have been getting more love from national sportswriters.
Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports has predicted a 35-31 victory for the Aggies on Saturday, citing that USU should have beaten Auburn and BYU and that they have played a much tougher schedule.
Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com has rated the matchup between the Aggies and the Bobcats as the 19th best bowl game of the 35 total bowls and the best bowl game of any team in the state of Utah.
Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com wrote that the dual-threat combination of Robert Turbin and Adam Kennedy is intriguing to watch and that he liked the potential he saw in the Aggies during their last-minute loss to Auburn.
Finally, Mike Huguenin of Yahoo! Sports wrote that Robert Turbin could be a player that grabs the spotlight for the Aggies during the bowl game. Turbin is the eighth-leading rusher in the nation and sixth in touchdowns.
With all of the attention and hype leading up to the game, I'll add my prediction:
Utah State 28, Ohio 25