Despite changes, Aggies see familiar foe in San Jose State

Sep 26 2013 - 10:44pm

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Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press 
Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is attracting criticism of his performance last week against Southern California, when he was 21-of-39 passing for only 179 yards.
Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press 
Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is attracting criticism of his performance last week against Southern California, when he was 21-of-39 passing for only 179 yards.

LOGAN -- On Oct. 13 of last year, Utah State football nearly made history in the backfield.

Thirteen sacks were registered by the Aggie defense in a 22-point win over San Jose State. That was just two short of the NCAA and Western Athletic Conference record set by Texas Christian in a Sept. 9, 2000, win at Nevada.

USU and SJSU play again today at Spartan Stadium in San Jose (7 p.m., ESPN). USU returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense, including all three on that line. The Spartans also return 15 starters.

One difference is in coaching. Both clubs feature new head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators and, generally, new staffs.

SJSU head coach Ron Caragher comes from the University of San Diego and has brought Jimmie Dougherty (offense, Washington) and Kenwick Thompson (defense, California) with him.

But Aggie defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said that he expects "a lot of continuity" by the offense, with the return of 2012 all-conference performers David Fales (quarterback) and receivers Noel Grigsby and Chandler Jones (receivers).

It doesn't mean much to USU coach Matt Wells.

"Same venue, but it about stops right there, to be honest," the first-year head coach said. ""You've both got returning quarterbacks and both coming from the WAC. Both were in bowl games, both won 11 games, both were ranked, both had a coaching staff change, both wear a shade of blue, both have State in their name, I could go on."

Jokes aside, what about those baker's dozen worth of sacks?

"Different pressures and movement up front puts you off your rhythm, or your launch-point, or all of the above," Wells said. "Anything that makes a quarterback speed up his mind and his decision-making is affected from a defensive standpoint.

"Whether we did that last year or not, I don't know. I know it affects quarterbacks all the time."

Those strategies deployed last year, along with the number of returning Spartans, at least provide a reason to watch film of that Oct. 13 game more than a previous year's game tape is usually viewed. Defensive lineman Jordan Nielsen, who sacked Fales twice last season, acknowledged as much. Linebacker Jake Doughty, who got to Fales for a nine-yard loss, thought similarly, saying the USU defense is "basically the same."

Wells is also at odds with that.

"The bottom line is that it's a new team," he said. "We're totally different from last year. It's a different chemistry."

Orlando said despite the SJSU offensive personnel being similar, it has gotten better. Faster, particularly, in a system that relies on timing between the quarterback and receivers. That, he said, may cause his group problems even if the Spartans are again without Grigsby, out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Fales still passed for 439 yards, 12th highest in school history, in last week's 43-24 loss at Minnesota. Nevin Lawson, who sacked Fales twice from the cornerback position last year, said 70 percent of SJSU's plays will be passing plays.

"They have a lot better timing," said Orlando, a defensive coordinator at Connecticut and Florida International the past eight seasons. "They're not going to take sacks. (Fales) is getting the ball out of his hands faster and are running routes better. Last year, we got them to hold the ball."

And got to Fales by routine four-to-five man rushes, as former USU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said last year, when the USU offensive lineman often beat the SJSU defensive line in one-on-one battles.

Regardless, the Spartan offensive line has held their own in games against Stanford and Minnesota, Orlando said. Fales was sacked four times against the Cardinal and once against the Golden Gophers, respectively - and once in SJSU's season-opening win over Sacramento State of the FCS.

Last season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound native of Salinas, Calif. was tackled behind the line of scrimmage 26 times in 13 games--13 in 12 contests excluding the USU game. Overall, he is getting sacked an average of twice per game both this season and last fall.

"It's a right now business. I don't look at it from last year (versus) this year," Orlando said. "Maybe from a confidence standpoint, our kids will see it that way."

It does for Doughty.

"It gives you a little more (confidence)," the senior said. "A big part of this game plan is for the defensive line and linebackers winning one-one-ones, dropping further into coverage and playing the field instead of trying to bring six or seven guys."

KEETON'S WOES: Wells expressed frustration that attention is being made only now on quarterback Chuckie Keeton's struggles and the Aggies' offensive technique shortcomings. Keeton was 21-of-39 for 179 yards in last week's loss to USC after averaging 307.7 yards and a 78 percent completion rate in USU's first three contests. USU ranked eighth nationally in scoring before posting just 14 points and 285 yards against the Trojans.

After that defeat, Keeton's lack of discernment in finding open receivers and identifying when to run were among the criticisms levied against him.

"I can tell you that the day after the Air Force game we weren't throwing a party and just hootin' and hollerin,' patting those kids on the back," Wells said of his team's 52-20 win on Sept. 7. "When I came off the Air Force game and said 'Chuckie Keeton needs to do these four things better,' I had everybody looking at me like I'm kidding.

"Now I come off the USC game and say 'Chuckie Keeton needs to do these four things better' to him, everyone says 'Oh yeah, because y'all lost.' No, it's the same.

"It's my approach to teaching and preparing these kids every single week. If we do that in every meeting room, I think we'll be consistent as the year goes on. That's our goal internally. Our approach doesn't change after a loss."

NOTES: USU has won 12 straight conference games, a school record. ... USU also has won a school-record seven straight conference road games, which is a school record. ... USU is starting conference play with consecutive road games for the first time since 1996 ...

Keeton currently ranks tied for second in the nation along with Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater with 14 touchdown passes on the season, trailing Oregon State's Sean Mannion, who leads the nation with 15 touchdown passes.

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