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BYU and Utah State meet Friday night in a game that should determine whether the Cougars are indeed back on track, and whether the 2012 Aggies really are the best team to come out of Logan in decades.
After consecutive losses at Utah and Boise State while starting a physically-hampered quarterback, BYU was last week sparked by backup QB Taysom Hill and fellow freshman Jamaal Williams in a home-field shutout of Hawaii.
Utah State, meantime, has shaken off a heartbreaking loss at Wisconsin to easily handle future Mountain West Conference foes in Colorado State and UNLV over the last two weeks.
As a result, both teams have reason to feel that they are (or are getting back to) where they want to be, with Friday's contest standing as a true mid-season benchmark. I think Utah State is the best team the Cougars have so far faced on this season's slate, and while Aggie partisans may not feel the same about BYU, there is that little matter of USU's 16-game losing skid in Provo.
The Aggies could justifiably assert that a competitive matchup with BYU appears slightly tilted in Utah State's favor, but the visitors' lengthy losing streak represents a significant mental hurdle to overcome on Friday night--a hurdle that may have contributed to BYU's status as a touchdown favorite.
Utah State's 4-1 start is its best since 1978, which notably happens to be the last time the Aggies beat BYU on its home turf. As Utah State seeks to cement its legitimacy with a rare win over its neighbor to the south, the Cougars seek to set their feet to start the most challenging part of their schedule.
A BYU win would not only be a confidence boost heading into back-to-back games against nationally-ranked teams, it would be a 12th win in the last 13 meetings with the Aggies, and a 25th victory in the 28 get-togethers since USU's last win in Provo.
While head coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Gary Andersen can testify to the competitive nature of the series since Andersen's appointment in Logan, it will take more than an Aggie win every decade or so to have created a true rivalry of these annual meetings. Utah State can take a strong step in that direction with a win on Friday night.
The underdog may feel slighted by the spread. The home team may feel that Utah State's public confidence is misplaced, given the series' historical profile. Either way, the anticipation of a closely-contested game is clearly warranted.
Utah State's Chuckie Keeton and BYU's presumptive starter Taysom Hill will keep defenders on the run all night. Keeton is a top 30 QB in pass efficiency and total offense stats, and ranks second on the team in ground gains.
Hill, while yet to get loose through the air, is already BYU's leading rusher on the season and has outgained Keeton on the ground, in only a single start. Hill's four rushing touchdowns lead BYU, while Keeton has yet to find the end zone with his feet. For the record, Hill has an inch of height and about 20 pounds of weight on Keeton.
The respective defenses are dominant, and a reflection of the head coaches, both of whom made their name in the game as defensive coordinators (while Mendenhall in 2010 reclaimed the play-calling responsibilities for the BYU defense, Andersen has handed the coordinator's hat to an assistant).
BYU and Utah's defenses are both ranked in the top 25 in rush yards allowed (BYU 2nd, USU 22nd), pass yards allowed (BYU 11th, USU 15th), pass efficiency defense (BYU 19th, USU 13th), total yards allowed (BYU 5th, USU 11th) and points allowed (BYU 4th, USU 18th).
BYU has kept 11 consecutive opponents under 300 yards of total offense and the defense is on a shutout streak of nine-plus quarters; Utah State has yet to allow an opponent to top 20 points this season. Offensive productivity will be at a premium in Provo.
Historically, BYU scores well against Utah State; in fact, in the last 30 meetings, BYU has scored 30 points or more 26 times. It bears noting that in each of the last two seasons, both with USU's Andersen at the helm, BYU has scored 16 points (loss) and 27 points (win); Mendenhall's oft-stated respect for Andersen is founded in those kinds of results.
Dating back to last season, Andersen's Aggies have allowed no more than 24 points in eight consecutive games, going 6-2; under Bronco Mendenhall, BYU is 61-6 when allowing 24 points or fewer, and has won 37 consecutive home games when keeping opponents to no more than 24--just a number to watch, in a game that should be a lot of fun to watch.
Coverage of BYU and Utah State starts Friday night at 6:00pm on KSL Newsradio/BYU Radio, with the kickoff scheduled for around 8:15pm.
Photo Courtesy: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News