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'All hands on deck': Utah State needs everything it's got against Memphis in bowl

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DALLAS β€” A victim of the national Christmas weekend artic blast, northern Texas saw some atypical freezing temperatures the past few days.

Fortunately for Utah State, its bowl game against Memphis in the First Responder Bowl on Tuesday afternoon will be a bit warmer, with the temperatures expected to be in the mid-40s at kickoff. That's certainly no tropical paradise, but it's a nice reprieve from the Cache Valley winter.

If the Aggies (6-6) want to find success in their final game under the cool Lone Star skies, they'll have to bring the heat against the Tigers (6-6).

Memphis is a 7.5-point favorite for the 1:15 p.m. MST bowl game kickoff on ESPN, but its .500 record is less an indicator of a mediocre team and more of a poor-finishing squad β€” losses to Houston, East Carolina, UCF and SMU all came by single digits.

The Tigers boast quarterback Steve Henigan, who passed for 3,287 yards and 19 touchdowns in the regular season while rushing for 315 yards. The run game, steered by Jevyon Ducker, averages 142.1 rushing yards a game. And Memphis' offense puts up 35.1 points per game on average.

For the Aggies to beat the Tigers, it will require a concerted effort on both sides of the ball.

"It'll be all hands on deck," Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said. "We'll see who can step in and step up and help us find a way to get to number seven β€” 7-6 sounds a lot better than 6-7 for us."

Utah State's defense managed to be the more competitive side throughout the regular season, but injuries increasingly plagued the roster, and by the Boise State game nearly the entire depth chart seemed to be utilized.

Key contributors on the defensive side are expected to be back from injury β€” most notably starting cornerbacks Ajani Carter and Micheal Anyanwu, along with backup defensive end John Ward. Senior cornerback Andre Grayson opted out of the bowl game, and backup defensive tackle Sione Moa and backup safety Luke Marion entered the transfer portal. Graduate student safety Hunter Reynolds will play his final game.

Offensively, running back Calvin Tyler Jr., wide receivers Justin McGriff and Brian Cobbs, and offensive linemen Alfred Edwards and Chandler Dolphin will play their final game of college eligibility.

Attrition wasn't as much of an issue for the offense, but similar to the defense, the wear and tear of the season had its toll. After the loss to Boise State over Thanksgiving weekend, Anderson opted not to hold an official bowl game practice until Dec. 18. It was meant to give his coaching staff time to recruit and his players time to rest.

The hope was the extended time off would refresh the legs and give the Aggies a chance to compete against the American Athletic Conference foe.

"Just watching the guys fly around we look light on our feet β€” fresh," Anderson said. "The time off has been helpful for guys just to feel better."

The question is if Utah State can hang with Memphis physically. A lack of live hitting in practices for a few weeks doesn't seem like an ideal way to get ready, but neither is a team ready with a physically and mentally depleted roster.

"We have a big challenge," Anderson said. "At times this year, we've looked really good in that in that setting, at times we've not so. The challenge is to be more physical than them up front."

With a versatile offensive attack, the Tigers average 421.8 yards a game and will manage to score points on the Aggies' defense; the key is to avoid conceding big plays.

"They're a good passing offense, their quarterback distributes the ball and has a lot of receivers and tight ends that are really dangerous," Reynolds said. "I mean, they have a lot of guys, you know 500-400 yards, which shows that they just like to (throw) the ball evenly, so anyone's a threat on any given place. It's really going to make us have to be on top of our game all game long, because you never know who could hurt you."

Defensively, Memphis looks more beatable. The Tigers give up 250 passing yards per game, but Anderson said the stats are misleading.

"They play a lot of really good teams, and it's hard to keep numbers down when you play the skill that they're playing against," Anderson said. "So I don't let stats give me a whole lot. I really kind of trust my eyes β€” I see length and speed guys that can run around."

The Aggies will need to counter with a strong offensive showing. And the times Utah State has performed best on offense, it's been when Tyler gets going with a strong run game. Tyler will be playing in his home state in front of over 40 family members and friends, so he's expecting to have a memorable final game.

"I'm excited for the challenge," Tyler said. "I know those guys will be ready to play. My O-line, they're going to be ready to play, the team will be ready to play."

In a year that flipped from disastrous to salvageable, the chance remains for Utah State to close the season out with a marquee win. For a .500 team from the Mountain West, an opportunity to play an AAC opponent in a post-Christmas bowl, rather than a MAC team in a pre-Christmas bowl, is an encouraging opportunity.

But for the Aggies to win in the Metroplex, and claim their second straight winning season, it will require a strong performance from all fronts.

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