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After surviving front-heavy schedule, Aggies defense eager to get into conference play

Utah State Aggies linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (10) celebrates a missed Brigham Young Cougars field goal in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Utah State Aggies linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (10) celebrates a missed Brigham Young Cougars field goal in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

LOGAN — At the beginning of the bye week for Utah State, which came on the heels of a grueling five-game slate, Utah State outside linebacker coach Nick Paremski stepped into the office of defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda and proposed a question.

"He said, 'If I handed you a contract and said before the season that you would be 3-2 coming out of these games, would you sign it right away?'"

For Banda, the choice was easy: "I said, hell yeah, I'd have signed it."

The question — and the response — helped put things into perspective for Banda. Back-to-back losses against Boise State and BYU were frustrating for the Aggies, but there's a lot to be pleased with for the new coaching staff — three wins to open the season, including a win over Washington State for the first Power Five road win since 1971, and a win over Air Force in Colorado Springs for the first time since 2013.

All in year one of the Blake Anderson tenure.

"I am very, very pleased," Banda said. "But it's the natural coach in us that always wants more. And it's the part that sometimes fans don't get to see, there's so much more left in this team that we could be better; I said this a million times. We have not as a team put it all together."

There have been moments of success from the Aggies defense throughout the first five games. The problem is, their performance has been sporadic.

On Sept. 10 against North Dakota, Utah State gave up three first quarter touchdowns, then the Fighting Hawks were held scoreless for the remainder of the game. On Sept. 18 against Air Force, the Aggies defense caved in, surrendered 619 yards — 437 on the ground — and 45 points.

Just a week later against Boise State, the Aggies forced four punts and gave up just 27 points. If not for short fields gifted by three offensive turnovers, it would have been less. Hosting BYU on Oct. 1, they gave 291 yards of offense in the first half, then came out in the second half and forced three straight three-and-out series from the Cougars.

"We're dominant sometimes — in spurts," Banda said of his defense. "You saw that in the BYU game, especially in the third quarter, and a little bit in fourth as well. And then you see it in the Boise game for pretty much the whole game until the end where things got out of hand. You saw it in the North Dakota game, minus the first quarter, the next three quarters. We just stuffed them in the trash can at Washington State, and we struggled versus Air Force, but we can be really, really good."

A big reason Utah State has been inconsistent is due to the caliber of teams they've been playing. The Aggies played what Banda considered to be "three Power Five teams" in Washington State, Boise State and BYU, and then a team in Air Force, which Banda said, was "ahead" of the Aggies in development.

The reality is, they're teams with a talent edge who have the ability to wear out Utah State throughout the course of 60 minutes.

"When the schedule came out, I was not excited about the first five," Banda said. "It's been a rough five games to be honest with you in terms of just battling every week. I'm not saying that the next few games aren't gonna be hard, but this was not an easy start."

In every game besides Air Force, Utah State's defense displayed the speed and physicality necessary to force offenses off the field at times. They've had a knack for putting teams behind the sticks. The Aggies defense is averaging eight tackles for loss per game, which is 11th in the nation. They've also forced four interceptions, 49th in the nation.

But they've been overly prone to "long plays." The Aggies have given up 26 plays of 20-plus yards — that's 5.2 per game.

Big plays were a major reason Utah State fell to BYU. The Aggies gave up six big plays to BYU, four of which were runs from Cougars running back Tyler Allgeier.

The big plays have made an otherwise stout defense look unimpressive. Entering Week 6 of college football, they were 113th nationally in rush defense, giving up 204 yards per game, and 108th nationally in pass defense, giving up 259.8 yards per game.

Banda highlighted a few reasons for giving up explosive plays.

"It's been multiple things. It's been a blast up front on the D line, it's been a misfit at linebacker, it's been a bust in the safety, and it's been a busted corner. So like, everyone's taken turns, unfortunately. And I wish it wasn't the case, because it'd be a lot easier if it was just one group or one person. And I can just fix that one group or one person, as a defense, we all have to own it. And we all have to eliminate those situations, and those in those deals.

"And I will say this too ... sometimes they're just bigger and better."

Facing teams that are "bigger and better" have taken its toll on an Aggies defense that has been continuously praised for its effort by Anderson.

Safety Shaq Bond, who injured his knee against Washington State, returned to the field after the North Dakota game but is still working to get back to full strength. Star linebacker Justin Rice, who didn't appear 100% against the Cougars, isn't injured but was worn out after playing "a ton of snaps" to open the season, Banda said.

The defensive front is also worn out. Banda said starting defensive tackles Hale Motu'apuaka and Marcus Moore as guys who were "a little banged up" and in need of the bye week; and starting defensive end Nick Heninger, who's considered by his teammates to be the patriarch of the Aggies family, also needed a break.

"Grandpa is playing great football but just needs some rest," Banda said.

With the help of the bye week, most defensive players, besides safety Dominic Tatum, who is likely out for the season after an injury against Air Force, have a good chance at playing against UNLV on Oct. 16.

"Most guys will start to trickle out of the training room and back on the practice field," Banda said.

For practice last week, which didn't begin until Wednesday, the team didn't wear pads and didn't do anything physical. Instead, they focused on cardio, staying in shape and trying to get healthy. They'll return to regular in-season activities on Monday.

Following the much-needed break, there's an eagerness to get back on the field against UNLV and start a stretch against Mountain West opponents.

"The reality is, of the five games we've played, only two have really mattered," Banda said. "Everyone gets excited about the other ones, because BYU and I get it, the rivalry, you have to go through a game like that to truly experience it and feel it and understand the importance of it. … But the reality is, the only two that mattered were Air Force and Boise.

"So for us to finally be able to just, week by week, understand the importance of being 1-0 and winning every conference game we can so that we have an opportunity to compete for a Mountain West Championship, I'm excited about, because that keeps your kids attention more than anything else."

Six of the final seven games are against conference foes. Teams who are more on par with or below the Aggies talent wise. According to ESPN, Utah State will have the easiest strength of schedule in all of FBS for the rest of the way. ESPN's FPI predicts them to finish the season 6-2.

The hope from Banda, and the Aggies defense, is they'll be able to stay healthy, bring it all together at once and continue the push for a conference title.

"I'm just excited to play teams that look like us," Banda said. "We haven't had a game when we've put [everything] together. And when we do I feel sorry for whoever we're playing."


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