Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
LOGAN — Utah State football has had an impressive start to its season, going 3-0 for the first time since 1978. After last week's 49-45 victory over Air Force, the Aggies garnered two Top 25 votes from the USA Today Coaches Poll, and are one of four undefeated schools remaining out west.
The Aggies offense has been excellent thus far, averaging 41 points and 563.3 yards of offense per game. Senior receiver Deven Thompkins leads all of FBS with 454 receiving yards, while senior linebacker Justin Rice has earned back-to-back Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week awards.
Now, the Aggies have their stiffest test to date, squaring up against Boise State for a nationally televised home game on CBS at 10 a.m. Saturday. It's a game with massive implications for Utah State's conference championship aspirations.
Another big game
Starting the season with back-to-back-to-back games overcoming a double-digit deficit to pick up a win, a concern is that by Week 4, a team could be physically and emotionally drained from all the excitement. But according to head coach Blake Anderson, the victories have had the opposite effect on the Aggies.
"I honestly think every step just fires them up even more, it's kind of like throwing gas on a flame," he said during this week's press conference. "Every ounce of success just breeds more excitement in the group. They love to work, they're not afraid of it. We respect every opponent but we're not afraid of any opponent or really the moment."
It's the type of mentality Utah State needs to have against Boise State. The perennial Group of Five foe out of the Gem State has won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference each of the past four seasons. They've defeated Utah State in five straight games, the last Aggie win being a shocking 52-26 home victory in 2015.
The Broncos are a team you have to beat if you want to reach the peak of the Mountain Division, something Utah State knows all too well. In 2018, the 9-1 Aggies fell to Boise State in the final game of the regular season, fumbling away the chance to host the conference championship game.
"They've got a ton of notoriety over the last 10 years or so, maybe more," Anderson said. "And they've recruited well to do that. They built a great program and I don't expect that to change although you know they've proven that they can be beaten if you play great ball."
This year's matchup, despite being early in the season, could once again have some high stakes attached to it. After beating Air Force in the conference opener, a win over the Broncos would set the Aggies up nicely to win the division.
Utah State avoids playing Pacific Division foes Fresno State, Nevada and San Diego State this season — all conference opponents who have defeated Pac-12 schools this season. After Boise State, the Aggies' remaining conference games are against UNLV, Colorado State, Hawaii, San Jose State, Wyoming and New Mexico. Those schools have a combined record of 9-9, with four of those wins being over FCS schools.
Getting by the Broncos would do two things for Utah State: 1) They'd have the tiebreaker, affording them a loss to as many conference games as Boise State and yet still win the division 2) prove they have the talent and ability to beat anyone else in the conference.
"It'd be really good for us and our conference standings and everything," offensive lineman Jacob South said. "But at this point, we don't really like looking forward that much. It's always one degree better every day. And so it's like, we're focused on Boise this week, focused on beating them, focused on putting together a game plan to help us be able to do that.
1-2 Boise State is still Boise State
The Broncos have had a disappointing nonconference performance, dropping games against UCF and Oklahoma State. Both games could have gone their way, but a drive-ending interception thrown by quarterback Hank Bachmeier and a blocked field goal by Oklahoma State proved to be the difference.
Loses against an undefeated Big 12 school and a premier Group of Five team sting, yet have little to do with how Boise State will perform in conference play.
Arguably the most talented team in the Mountain West, the Broncos have plenty of playmakers that have shown well this year. Senior wide receiver Khalil Shakir already has 335 receiving yards on 20 catches. Bachmeier is 64-of-97 on pass attempts for 845 yards.
The Broncos offense sputtered at times, particularly against Oklahoma State when the offensive line struggled to protect Bachmeier and the rushing attack only gained 61 yards. But their passing game has been extremely effective. On Saturday, expect to see Boise State try to exploit the Aggies in the air.
"I think their quarterback does a great job of staying poised and getting the ball. They obviously do a lot of bells and whistles like eye candy. Misdirection and he can deliver the ball, he's very calm, and he's got tons of weapons."
The Boise State defense has shown well early this season. Led by junior safety JL Skinner, who has 32 tackles after three games, and fifth-year linebacker Riley Whimpey, who has 25, the Broncos have held opponents to 23.3 points per game this season. They have plenty of experience and speed to test the explosive Aggie offense. They did give up 246 rushing yards against Oklahoma State, 216 of which came from former Aggie running back Jaylin Warren.
"I would say collectively the best defense we will have played hands down," Anderson said. "It is a huge challenge for our offense to extend drives and finish in the endzone. They are going to challenge you basically in every area. The matchups are difficult all across the board length. Size, speed, physicality, there's just not a weakness that you see."
USU secondary missing a big piece
Senior safety Shaq Bond, who missed the North Dakota game, returned for last week's game against Air Force. But the collective health of the secondary was short-lived.
The other starting safety, junior Dominic Tatum, hobbled off the field against the Falcons and didn't return. During this week's press conference, Anderson confirmed that Tatum had a serious injury.
"He is probably out for quite some time, if not the rest of the season," he said. "We don't have all the details, but it was a significant injury. We'll see how it goes. Prayers with him. He's a great kid and worked hard to get where he's at."
Losing Tatum is a major blow. He currently is second on the team in tackles with 21. He played a huge role in defeating Washington State, notching a tackle for loss and recording a pass deflection in the end zone. His speed and nose for the ball will be missed when the Aggies play high-level quarterbacks, such as Bachmeier.
This week's depth chart failed to account for Tatum's absence, but expect second-stringer Monte McGary, a transfer from Troy, to get the starting job on Saturday.
Also noteworthy, Anderson said that starting quarterback Logan Bonner, who was knocked out of last week's game, will be "ready to go" on Saturday.
Saturday morning football
Saturday's game will give Utah State some serious national exposure.
It's the Aggies' first home game on the CBS mother station and their first game on CBS since the Mountain West Championship game in 2013 at Fresno State.
"Anytime you can go out and play on a national stage and represent the university and the logo and the brand, it obviously helps in recruiting," said Anderson. "But you know, we're focused on the opponent. It just so happens that there's going to be a few more cameras maybe this week than normal."
The exposure comes with a price. The game is being played in the first TV window of the day, meaning it will kick off at 10:00 a.m.
For the Aggie football team, and for journalists with deadlines, the early kickoff isn't too big of a deal. For fans commuting to Logan from the Wasatch Front, and students who stay up late on Friday nights, maybe it's a different story.
There are still 1,000 plus tickets remaining for the game, despite an anonymous donor buying a number of tickets to give out to elementary-aged children and their families, according to Aggies play-by-play analyst Scott Gerrard.