Lamentations and Hope
The Utah State Aggies are looking to get the 2021 season off to a better start than the disastrous 2020 season. USU has never faced North Dakota and this game represents a return to normalcy of sorts for the Aggies. The schedule is full again and hopefully, the stadium will be as well this coming fall.
Last year, USU went just 1-5 against an abbreviated schedule, and the final game was cancelled due to the players choosing to sit out against Colorado State. This came swirling amidst program controversy surrounding the alleged discrimination against then interim coach Frank Maile. The Ags will need every win they can reasonably get in 2021 to regain momentum and this is an excellent opportunity to do so against a solid FCS foe. A win over this Fighting Hawks squad won’t come as easy as other FCS competition.
Heading into 2021, the new Aggie coaching staff helmed by Blake Anderson appears to be filling in program holes quite nicely. Along with known coaching commodities from Arkansas State such as Wide Receivers coach Kyle Cefalo, Anderson brought strong additions in Defensive Coordinator Ephraim Banda (formerly at Miami) and Offensive Coordinator Anthony Tucker (formerly at UCF). Anderson and company have hit the ground running in recruiting the transfer portal and USU’s talent appears as strong as it has been in the last decade.
Now the Ags just need to prove it on the field again.
— Savon Scarver (@SavonScarver) May 11, 2021
Quick Look at North Dakota this last Spring
North Dakota had a whirlwind 2020 football season (played in Spring 2021). Boasting a solid 5-2 overall record, the Fighting Hawks won all but one of their Missouri Valley conference games last season, most in dominating fashion. Their only conference loss was to in-state rival and FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 34-13.
However, they then had three of their games canceled in a row, going an entire month without playing ball. After this hiatus, they took the field again in the FCS first round against Missouri State, winning handily 44-10. In the Quarterfinal, they fell to James Madison 34-21.
Key Players for the Fighting Hawks
The Fighting Hawks return their starting QB and RB in Tommy Schuster and Otis Weah. Both players were extremely productive last season and they have plenty of room to grow with their young age.
Schuster passed for 1,428 yards and 10 TDs to just five picks last season. He’s an above average passer and has the size to take hits as needed, so he’s not easily rattled.
Otis Weah has downright excellent stats for a running back. For the 2020 campaign, he racked up 730 yards and nine TDs on just 102 attempts, good for over seven yards per carry. He’s got the right combination of weight and height to be imposing while being fast and he could easily pose problems for a re-built Aggie defense that struggled to stop much of anything last year.
On the defensive side of the ball, USU needs to be wary of ILB Noah Larson. This player is big and he ranked third on the team last season with 82 tackles, 54 assisted and 28 solo. He’s only going to improve in 2021 and USU’s retooled offensive line needs to be ready to hold him off, which won’t be an easy task.
FCS foes have rarely given USU any headaches. The last time that happened was in 2015 against a Southern Utah team that had three NFL draft picks on their defense. USU escaped that contest 12-9 thanks to a timely punt return for a touchdown near the end of the game.
Against this North Dakota team, I expect the Fighting Hawks to stay close for a half. They will give USU fits early and they will certainly get yards with their offensive weapons. However, USU’s defense will eventually impose its will with improved depth on the line and a strong linebacking corps, making the Hawks one-dimensional. On the flip side, North Dakota’s smaller defense will get worn down against an improved USU rushing attack.
Utah State 41, North Dakota 17