Preseason Preview: BYU vs. Utah State
BYU should be well rested when it faces in-state rival Utah State on a Friday night in week six of the 2014 college football season.
The Cougar have a bye week leading up to the game, while Utah State will be operating on a short week following a road contest at Arkansas State.
BYU has won 13 of the last 14 games in this long-time series, including last season’s 31-14 victory in Logan. Since 1975, the Cougars have dominated the rivalry, going 29-4 against the Aggies.
Last season’s game was highlighted by Kyle Van Noy’s interception return for a touchdown on the very first play of the game and the season-ending knee injury suffered by USU star quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
The Aggies were never able to overcome the loss of Keeton in the first quarter as BYU rolled to an easy victory. USU scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game to make the final score a bit more respectable.
Even without Keeton, the Aggies were able to circle the wagons and have another successful season, going 9-5 and finishing in first place in the Mountain Division in their first year in the Mountain West Conference.
Freshman quarterback Darell Garretson started the last seven games of the season and went 6-1. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,446 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Though the Aggies lost to Fresno State in the MWC championship game, they finished 2013 with a solid 21-14 win over Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.
BYU Defense vs. Utah State Offense
Assuming Keeton (6-2, 200 Sr.) is back to 100 percent, he’ll be the best offensive player that BYU will face during the 2014 season. The preseason MWC Offensive Player of the Year has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes during his career for 5,961 yards and 56 touchdowns. He’s also gained 1,153 yards and scored 14 TDs running the ball.
The biggest challenge for Keeton this season may not be his health, but rather the loss of talent around him. The Aggies lose five of six players with starting experience on the offensive line, their top two rushers and two of their top three receivers. In all, seven starters from last season’s offense are gone.
USU graduated three All-MWC performers on the offensive line in center Tyler Larson, guard Jamie Marksosian and tackle Eric Shultz. Lawson signed a free agent deal with the Miami Dolphins after his USU career, while Schultz was invited to the Seattle Seahawks mini-camp.
The lone returning starter on the offensive line is former Lone Peak Knight Kevin Whimpey (6-5, 295 Sr.). He’ll be called upon to man the all-important left tackle spot and be the leader up front for a number of players who lack important playing experience.
Senior center Joe Summers (6-2, 294 Sr.) is expected to try fill the big shoes of the departed Larson, while his former teammate at Snow College, Bill Vavau (6-4, 314 Sr.) will likely plug in next to Summers at one of the guard positions. Neither player has started a game at the D-1 level.
That inexperienced group will be blocking for Joe Hill (5-11, 190 Sr.) in the running game this year, who returns after suffering his own season-ending knee injury midway through the 2013 season. Hill has averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per carry during his career in Logan and has scored nine touchdowns. He figures to be the workhorse in the backfield given the fact that the Aggies lose their top rusher Joey DeMartino (1,221 yards) and their No. 2 runner Robert Marshall (415 yards).
In the passing game, USU also has to replace wide receivers Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen. The two combined for 1,493 yards on 103 receptions and scored seven touchdowns.
The diminutive JoJo Natson (5-7, 151 Jr.) returns for 2014 after leading the Aggies in receptions (59) last year. He’s a shifty and quick playmaker who caught a lot of underneath stuff last season and was perhaps the most dangerous return man in the MWC.
Also returning is Brandon Swindall (6-4, 198 Jr) and Robert Butler (6-0 185 Sr.), the fourth and fifth-leading pass catchers in 2013. Both will be expected to pick up their game and production this coming season.
Natson and Butler both had their run ins with the law this summer, however any disciplinary action handed out is expected to take place prior to the game in Provo and probably won’t impact this game.
Wyatt Houston is the projected starter at tight end after starting three games late last season. He filled in for the injured D.J. Tialavea and ended up with seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
BYU Offense vs. BYU Defense
The Utah State defense loses six starters from last season’s impressive group of defenders, including the most of the front line and secondary.
The obvious strength of the defense is at linebacker where the Vigil brothers, Zack (6-2, 232 Sr.) and Nick (6-2, 230 So.) return, along with Kyler Fackrell (6-5, 245 Jr.), one of the top linebackers in the West.
Fackrell is an NFL-caliber talent who has already started 27 games during his career and led the Aggies with 13 tackles for loss as a sophomore. He also had five sacks, 80 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception that he returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
USU does have to find a replacement for first-team, All-MWC inside linebacker Jake Doughty, who led the team with 148 tackles. Junior Torrey Green (6-2, 220 Jr.) will battle freshmen Alex Huerta (6-2, 223 Fr.) and Ian Togiai (6-2, 230 Fr.) in fall camp for the right to try to fill Doughty’s big shoes.
The Aggies lose three key players with starting experience along the defensive line in nose guard A.J. Pataiali’i and defense ends Paul Piukala and Conner Williams. The good news is that their are players ready to step up and help carry the load.
B.J. Larsen (6-5, 275 Sr.) started 13 of USU’s 14 games at defensive end last year, recording eight tackles for loss and four sacks. He’ll be joined on the other side of the line by Jordan Nielson (6-5, 270 Jr.), who earned second-team, All-MWC honors despite not being a starter.
The nose guard spot will be filled by Elvis Kamana-Matagi (6-2, 298 Sr.) and Travis Seefeldt (6-2, 302 Jr.). Kamana-Matagi started eight games in 2012 and may have the upper hand in locking down the starting job, however, both players are likely to see significant action against the Cougar’s fast-tempo offense.
In the secondary, free safety Brian Suite (6-3, 205 Jr.) is the lone returning starter. The rangy Suite started every game for the Aggies last season and led the team with five interceptions. He’ll be the undisputed leader in the secondary in 2014.
Gone are last year’s primary starters at corner, Nevin Lawson and Tay Glover-Wright. Lawson was a fourth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions during May’s NFL draft, while Glover-Wright signed a free agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Maurice Alexander, USU’s starting strong safety in 2013, was also drafted in the fourth round, being picked by the St. Louis Rams.
With the departure of three players who are currently trying to make NFL rosters, it’s little wonder that the defensive backfield is the biggest question mark on the defense.
Veteran back up Frankie Sutera (6-1, 201 Sr.) will try to replace the hole left by Alexander, while Miami native Rashard Stewart (5-11, 185 Sr.) is expected to start at one of the corner spots. Sutera has appeared in 37 games during his career and Stewart has played in 36 games, so the two are not without experience.
The other corner position is likely to to be manned by former Tennessee transfer Daniel Gray (5-11, 170 So.). The sophomore sat out last season in Logan after seeing action in eight games for the Volunteers as a true freshman in 2012. Interestingly, Gray gets a chance to face his old teammates this year as USU opens the 2014 schedule at Neyland Stadium.
How well this new group in the secondary comes together will determine how good the defense will be during the first half of the season. The hope in Logan is that it happens fast and that the Aggies’ defense is as stingy as ever when they visit Provo.
Utah State returns most of it’s key special teams players from last year.
Placekicker Nick Diaz begins this season already second in school history with 91 PATs and was a perfect 40-for-40 in 2013. He connected on 16 of 23 field goals last year and was 4-of-6 from beyond 40 yards.
Starting punter Jaron Bentrude also returns. He was 11th in the country in punts downed inside the 20-yard line with 31. The Aggies hope he can improve on his average of 39.8 yards per punt last season. Bentrude also serves as the holder for Diaz.
Natson is expected to reprise his role as the team’s primary punt returner. JoJo averaged 11.3 yards per return and scored two touchdowns.
The Bottom Line
Matt Wells did an outstanding job in his first year as the head coach in Logan and was recognized as the MWC Coach of the Year for his efforts. He stepped in for the departed Gary Andersen and kept things rolling right along, even with the loss of Keeton midway through the season.
Despite the recent success of the USU program, the Aggies are still looking for their first breakthrough in Provo since 1978. How quickly the offensive line and defensive backfield gel will determine what kind of chance they have of getting their first win on BYU’s home field in the last 36 years.
Utah State has a lot of talent to try to replace, and it will be particularly interesting to see how well the O-line fairs at keeping pressure off of Keeton as he tries to come back from knee surgery. With the losses on offense it’s unlikely that the Aggies will have enough overall fire power to hang with what should be an improved BYU offense in 2014.
The USU front seven should be solid once again, but the inexperience in the secondary could be a problem, especially during the first half of the season. The Cougars will be well rested while the Aggies will be working with a short week.
Preseason Prognostication: BYU 34 Utah State 17