Early Monday evening, the entire USU football team huddled between the 25- and 30-yard lines closest to the Laub Athletics Complex.
In the middle stood kicker Josh Thompson, the very occasion of the congregation.
Thompson — the criticized-of-late Logan native this season after missing field goals that would have won and tied the game against Wisconsin and BYU — had his shot at mental recalibration.
It was part of coach Gary Andersen’s plan from the beginning of this week’s practices in preparation for surprise WAC contender San Jose State.
“The last loss was a sting without question. We will get over it — not yet though, and we shouldn’t yet,” Andersen said before practice. “We will come back and watch special teams this afternoon, get out on the practice field and move onward and upward, but never forget.”
Taking aim again from nearly the same distances as his misses against the Badgers and Cougars — 37 and 38 yards — Thompson gave a mighty boot.
“Ohhh…” players and coaches anticipated as the ball neared the goalpost. “Ahhh!” would be their reaction a second later as the kick once again went awry — this time, a clang the right goal post.
The Aggies laughed it off as they still rallied around Thompson, as multiple players gave multiple pats on the junior’s back and helmet before focusing on Andersen’s practice-ending words.
While they may have treated the occasion lightly, the fact is that USU’s kicking game represents just one challenge facing them this weekend.
The Aggies (4-2, 0-0 WAC), still off to their best season start since 1982, face San Jose State (4-1, 0-0) today in San Jose. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. Mountain Time in the Spartans’ homecoming game.
Battles between USU and SJSU the past two seasons have ended in thrilling finishes, with the Aggies emerging victorious both times despite trailing in the fourth quarter. Spartan signal-caller Jordan La Secla in 2010 was intercepted by Nevin Lawson in the end zone with 15 seconds remaining to preserve a 38-34 win. USU quarterback Adam Kennedy, as part of his team’s second half turnaround last season, threw two touchdowns in the final 5:19 to lift the Aggies to a 34-33 victory, assured only after Harrison Waid’s 67-yard field goal try on the final play of the game was blocked. The Aggies hold a 4-3 edge overall against the Spartans as WAC foes.
Though SJSU features a new look at some key positions, including the backfield, Andersen believes this battle will be far from one-sided as well.
“I know they will be ready for it and we will be ready for it,” said Andersen, who doesn’t necessarily believe the Spartans’ bye week will make a difference in the outcome.
“They have good coaches and will have their kids prepared.”
Andersen said he personally knows defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who is leading the 25th best scoring defense in the nation (17.4 ppg) — the SJSU squad to allow the fewest points through five games since 1990. While USU ranks eighth in the same category, do top Aggie offensive weapons who have struggled against stout defenses expect anything more than a low-scoring affair like they found last week in Provo?
“The opportunities will show themselves. We will just need to take advantage of them,” said Chuck Jacobs, USU’s third-leading receiver who caught no passes against the Cougars, which scoring defense ranks third in the nation (8.8 ppg).
“We just expect a big game as a whole,” said running back Kerwynn Williams, who gained just 18 yards on 14 carries against BYU — and 43 yards on 16 carries in the loss to the Badgers, which defense ranks 29th in the nation (19.2 ppg). Prior to the BYU game, Williams racked up 318 rushing yards in the two previous contests against Colorado State and UNLV, whose scoring defenses nationally rank in the FBS bottom 40.
“They are going to come out and play hard. They’ve been playing well all season. I don’t know if we can expect anything other than to do the same.”
Receiver Matt Austin, USU’s leading receiver this fall, caught seven passes against BYU after going reception-less the previous week against UNLV. He acknowledged the Spartans’ strengths on defense — which includes his good friend, linebacker Keith Smith — will cause the contest to “go down to the wire again.” Smith is one of five Spartans with at least 28 tackles, led by 44 from linebacker Vince Buhagiar.
“Execution is the main thing on both sides of the ball, and that is what we look forward to,” he added, contributing to Andersen’s comment that “30 or 40” plays could have broken open the BYU contest, as it could Saturday. “There are a lot of different things that we had to take advantage of — and we didn’t.”
The Spartans have done just that, rattling off four straight wins after nearly stunning the nation in a 20-17 season-opening loss Aug. 31 at 17th-ranked Stanford. In addition to the defense, junior quarterback David Fales and senior running back De’Leon Eskridge bring additional spark to the firepower from a receiving corps that Andersen said is SJSU’s best unit.
Fales, a junior college transfer from Monterey Peninsula (Calif.) College, has thrown for 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns, while Eskridge, a transfer from the University of Minnesota, has rushed for 380 yards and three scores.
“(Eskridge) is getting better every single week,” said Andersen, who added that SJSU has successfully utilized him in various pistol, shotgun and speed option smashmouth-style attacks. “They have done a nice job of recruiting. He brings a physical presence to their offense as well as the ability to get outside.”
Regardless of the Spartans’ threats, Austin said USU remains focused on a mission they repeat in a similar setting to which they rallied around their kicker this week.
“We always break our huddle since day one with ‘WAC Champs,’ and that has always been our goal,” he said. “I am super-excited to get started.”