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'It's time to play': Anderson and the Aggies are ready for Washington State

Utah State first-year head coach Blake Anderson speaks to the media during Mountain West media days, Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in Las Vegas.

Utah State first-year head coach Blake Anderson speaks to the media during Mountain West media days, Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in Las Vegas. (Sean Walker,

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

LOGAN — Blake Anderson has been Utah State's head football coach for over eight months now, which is long enough that writing "new" next to his head coach title has become a worn-out habit. Yet he hasn't even coached a game.

That all changes Saturday.

Utah State commences its season in Pullman, Washington, against the Pac-12's Washington State Cougars — Anderson's first game at the helm of the Aggies program.

For him, personally, game week came quickly.

"That's the fastest eight months I've ever seen," said Anderson in Monday's pregame press conference. "It's a blur when you consider when we got here to what we're up against this week."

It's no wonder Anderson's offseason went by in a blur: There was much to do.

He first had to convince a number of Aggies players to stay in Logan after the debacle that was last season. Then, he and his new staff went out and recruited 13 new transfers to bolster the talent on the roster.

He spent time winning over boosters and building trust with community members. And, oh yeah, he got remarried. Sprinkle in spring camp, summer training and fall camp and much has been accomplished.

But now, the speculation, offseason drama and the "honeymoon stage" — all of which comes with a new hire — doesn't matter.

"It's time to play," Anderson said. "You put all that other stuff aside and really just focus on the task at hand. (We're) past the point of getting to know the kids. It feels like they're our kids, like it's our locker room. ... Now it's just about going out and finding out what kind of team we really have."

How a team is going to look in Game 1 is always a question mark, especially when it's against a Power Five opponent.

With Washington State, there are several unknowns. Similar to Anderson, who reaffirms it's still an open quarterback competition between Andrew Peasley and Logan Bonner, Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich hasn't announced who his QB1 will be this weekend.

Washington State struggled in Rolivich's first year in Pullman, going 1-3 last year, but returns a strong crop of seniors and graduate students.

Whether the quarterback is Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano or returning starter Jayden de Laura, the Cougars' passing attack should be effective. The winner of the job will have playmakers to pass to, most notably Travell Harris, a Cougars receiver who is "electric in space," according to Anderson.

But their real strength is the run game.

All-Pac-12 first-team running back Max Borghi only played one game last season, rushing for 96 yards against Utah. Now healthy, the Doak Walker award preseason nominee will be the go-to guy for Washington State as he looks to surpass the 817 rushing yards he put up in 2019.

And he'll have help, too. The offensive line is one of the Cougars' most proven positions.

Led by returning first-team offensive lineman Abraham Lucas, Anderson admitted Washington State is "big up front." They return four of five starters and should prove a formidable test for the Aggies defense, especially considering Utah State's top pass rusher, Byron Vaughns, is a "game-time decision" on Saturday.

"I know there's one young man that has had limited snaps, but the rest of those guys have been playing for quite a while," Anderson said. "They are big, long and physical. So that makes our job up front really difficult."

On defense, Washington State is more flimsy. They're led by linebacker and All-Pac-12 honorable mention Jahad Woods.

"He just finds the ball, regardless of how you try to attack him," Anderson said of Woods.

Up front, edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson will start. Both are capable of putting pressure on the quarterback — each posting 1.5 sacks last season.

The concern is their pass defense; the Cougars gave up 307 passing yards per game last season. The secondary returns experience, including top corner Jaylen Watson and free safety George Hicks, but didn't add anyone who will significantly upgrade the position.

"They like to play man coverage a lot, so that'll be good for us to show what we can do when it's one-on-one as a receiving corps," said senior wide receiver Deven Thompkins. "It's kind of the perfect matchup for us to really show our abilities and our potential."

Picking apart the Washington State passing defense, while containing its rushing attack, may be the best recipe to pull off the upset.

But for Anderson, overanalyzing what Washington State will be like in a first game, especially coming off a COVID-19 season, isn't the wisest decision. Instead, the focus, much like it's been the past eight months, is inward.

"To be honest with you, you're gonna think I'm crazy, but I have not spent all that time worried about Washington State," Anderson said. "I'm worried about us. I want to make sure we have our best team ready to go try to fix our issues. In every first game of the season, every bit of opponent work you put in is guesswork."

By every indication, fall camp was extremely physical for the Aggies in an effort to have the team ready for the season. Some guys got injured and the team as a whole looked a bit worn out at the public scrimmage on Aug. 21.

It certainly isn't ideal to have guys banged up. Defensive end's Jaylen Bannerman and Byron Vaughns, and offensive lineman Falepule Alo and Maisen Knight all missed time this fall due to injuries. But the hope is the consistency of physical reps and hard work is what will best prepare Utah State to compete with the Cougars in Pullman on Saturday.

"We've definitely jelled over the last couple of weeks of fall camp, a lot of time spent together, a lot of reps spent together," said senior linebacker Justin Rice. "So we're going to go out on Saturday and really show what we've been working on. ... We're mentally and physically ready to go out and win this game."


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