First Look: BYU at Utah State

First Look: BYU at Utah State

Mountain West Football

First Look: BYU at Utah State

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Rivalry game back after one-year hiatus

In this non-conference matchup, the Aggies will play a BYU team coming off a splendid 2020 campaign. Though the Cougars have some strong pieces, they lost most of the production that propelled them to their 11-1 record in 2020. Will their personnel losses give USU a shot at reclaiming the Wagon Wheel trophy?

Cougars in 2020

No getting around it: BYU had an excellent 2020 season, spoiled only by one loss. It’s easy to say the Cougars faced a gutted schedule from what it originally was, but the Cougs won big against most of their opponents and looked great in doing so. They won on the blue turf in Boise for the first time in program history, they stomped perennial G5 power UCF in a bowl (netting their first ever win in the state of Florida), and their offense was positively humming with eventual top-five NFL draft pick Zach Wilson leading the charge on offense.

BYU started their season off with a butt-kicking of the Navy Midshipmen in a game that was never close, winning 55-3. Outside a brief October scare against UTSA, a game BYU only won by one score in Provo, BYU went on to throttle the competition. Nobody but the Roadrunners got within two scores of Kalani Sitake’s team during their 9-0 start. There was even brief talk of them potentially making the College Football playoff with their spotless record. All they had to do was make it past upstart and upset-minded Coastal Carolina. If they could do that, the hype looked largely justified.

Unfortunately for BYU, the Chanticleers had other plans. Powered by a strong QB-RB duo in Grayson McCall and CJ Marable, Coastal Carolina wore down the Cougars’ defense with a punishing rush attack. The Chanticleers also beat the Cougs in time of possession by a staggering 15+ minute margin. It resulted in BYU having to constantly defend a creative offensive playbook, slowly but surely willing down their will to win. BYU’s quick strike offense wasn’t enough to overcome some critical errors and BYU ended up losing 22-17, mere inches from the goal line for a chance to win at the end of regulation.

Though BYU did end up winning against San Diego State and UCF to close out a satisfying season for their fan base, many of them will wonder what could have been had Dax Milne been even just one step ahead of Coastal’s secondary.

Major Rebuild for 2021

Coming into the 2021 season, BYU has a lot of lost production to make up. They had a terrific night at the 2021 NFL draft getting five of their players picked, the program’s best mark since 2002. Though this brings well-deserved accolades and hype, BYU has to get new starters at QB, LT, WR, DL, and DB.

The losses on the defensive side of the ball are so steep, they rank dead last in the FBS at #127 with only 16% of their production from 2020 coming back, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. The only top returning tacklers on defense are LB Keenan Pili, LB Payton Wilgar, and LB Max Tooley. Along the defensive line, it will be very tough to fill the shoes of Khyiris Tonga as well. Playing younger and more inexperienced players will almost certainly lead to a noticeable drop in production on gameday against a far stronger 2021 schedule.

On offense, the situation looks only somewhat better for the Cougs. They rank 116 in Connelly’s metrics, yet this still translates to losing over half the production from their offense. The losses of Milne, Wilson, and Christensen on that side of the ball can’t be understated for what they brought to their team. BYU is not wholly inexperienced at QB, with good options like Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall, though. At receiver, they still have Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u, though the latter did not play in 2019. Both are very reliable targets, so getting chemistry with the receiving corps probably won’t be as big of a hurdle for the new starting QB as it otherwise may have been.

Another bright spot and major factor to consider is their running back situation: it’s even better than it was in 2020. Not only do the Cougs lose nobody from the previous season, they’ve added a couple of new faces and boast versatility and depth at the position. The starter will undeniably be Tyler Allgeier. If he stays healthy, there will be no drop-off at this position group, which is huge for a team that will need to rely on the run to stay competitive against the tougher teams on the schedule.

Outlook for the Aggies come October

Make no bones about it: this game is going to be a slugfest.

Both the Aggies and the Cougars are going to feature heavily retooled offensive and defensive lines, and both squads will have strong running back groups to force the issue and make the opposing defense stop them. There is a very good chance this game turns into a shootout and it could also feature a lot of mistakes with so many new faces all over the field. Whichever team comes out the winner will almost certainly have to get great QB play to do so.

Though USU certainly can’t be worse than they were in 2020, they still have much to prove with a new coaching staff. The talent holes that have been filled in the offseason give me hope, but production is still king and we simply haven’t seen if it’s there yet. The Aggies are plainly outgunned in a few areas, but they can reasonably claim to be better in other areas over BYU, such as at Wide Receiver and in the Secondary. BYU has major coaching changes of their own to deal with, so any familiarity from when these teams last met in 2019 will largely be an afterthought here. The Cougs, like the Aggies, have new coaches at offensive coordinator, offensive line, and linebacker.

Having home field advantage very well could make the difference in this one for USU. It could also make for a similar rivalry game we saw in 2017, but perhaps with fewer turnovers.

Prediction – USU 34, BYU 28

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