Weber State football: 5 questions with The Aggship to preview Utah State
Weber State football travels to face Utah State for the first time since 2016 when the Wildcats and Aggies kick off at 5 p.m. Saturday.
To get an inside look at Utah State, I asked five questions of Patrick Mayhorn. He publishes The Aggship, a credentialed Utah State football and basketball outlet published several times a week via newsletter or at theaggship.com.
No. 1: The Aggies had to replace their top offensive producers. The USU offense hasn’t really got going so far this season. The UConn game was somewhat surprising that way and showed perhaps one such glimpse of last year’s success, and I’m not sure there’s a ton to learn in getting shut down by Alabama. Is this a new normal, or is there still a feel USU’s offense will become the quick-strike power it was last season as it gets more game reps?
Patrick Mayhorn: I wouldn’t read too much into the Utah State offense at this point. The Aggies entered the UConn game knowing they could win without showing too much offensively, and they were under no illusion that they could spring a serious upset bid on Alabama – after the Crimson Tide went up 17-0 in the first quarter, USU spent basically the rest of the game showing the bare minimum offensively.
Now, this does not mean the offense is without its issues. The passing game has shown essentially zero vertical ability, which could certainly be a product of the games they’ve played, but could also be a sign of things to come. Brian Cobbs is a great possession option, Justin McGriff is a matchup issue for any defense because of his size and Kyle Van Leeuwen is consistently open underneath, but none of the three have the kind of elite speed Utah State leaned on at receiver last fall.
There are speedy options out wide, namely redshirt freshman NyNy Davis and Alabama transfer Xavier Williams, though neither has been especially involved through two games. Getting one or both of those players more involved could go a long way toward allaying some of the concerns about this passing game. The core of the passing game is those quick-hit passes with play fakes attached in the backfield, but those don’t work without a vertical threat to stretch the defense.
The rushing attack, at this point, looks to be improved. Utah State is relying on a true freshman, Weylin Lapuaho, as a starting guard. That’s always a little scary, but he’s played well so far and has an experienced group around him. Calvin Tyler Jr. remains the starter and played well against UConn, though true freshman Robert Briggs has come on very strong through the early stages of the season and provides a little more top-end athletic ability than the entrenched starter.
No 2: Relatedly, when USU has been successful offensively, what has that looked like with this group?
PM: There wasn’t a whole lot of success against Alabama and there’s a sense around the program of that game being one to bury without giving it much thought. Against UConn, the offense was pretty stilted – a lot of drops, a lot of stalled drives, several bad turnovers – but had its moments of excellence, which were defined largely by an effective quick passing game and a physical change of pace on the ground. The Aggies gained 268 of their 542 yards against the Huskies on their four touchdown drives, averaging seven plays and just over two minutes (2:23 to be exact) across those series.
The connective tissue for those drives was a balance in playcalling: OC Anthony Tucker dialed up 17 passes to 14 rushes (three plays were waved off for penalties). This offense at its best is going to win by drawing the defense in with tough running from Briggs and Tyler on early downs, keeping it on its toes with a crisp passing game leaning heavily on Cobbs and Van Leeuwen as its top possession options, and striking the finishing blows with explosive plays, like a pair of 30-plus yard passes and a 23-yard touchdown run from Briggs. It’s a slow build designed to set up a haymaker.
No. 3: Who are the top defensive playmakers for Utah State so far this season — not just statistically, but the guys who are the heart-and-soul types, always around the ball and crucial to what’s going on?
PM: This defense is going to go as far as its defensive line takes it. There’s experience and talent everywhere, but the stars of the show are in the trenches. Specifically, defensive ends Daniel Grzesiak, Patrick Joyner Jr. and Byron Vaughns have stood out. They’ve yet to record huge stats, but Grzesiak has lived in the backfield on pass-rushing opportunities, Joyner has been extremely impressive physically against the run and Vaughns looks every bit the part of a future NFL player, doing a little bit of everything and getting the best of Alabama’s phenomenal offensive tackles at least a dozen times despite consistent double-team blocks. It’s been a slower start for the tackle group, but Hale Motu’apuaka has proven himself as an all-conference caliber player in the fast and freshman Seni Tuiaki is coming on very quickly.
Another youngster has stolen the spotlight in the back of the defense and seems to be well on the path to future stardom: Cache Valley native Ike Larsen. The redshirt freshman safety has two interceptions in as many games and seems to make a play every time he’s on the field, including a punt block against the Crimson Tide.
No. 4: Are there concerns over being weary after a game like losing 55-0 to Alabama, with both the on-field play and the travel, or is it more likely the Aggies are relieved to be done facing Alabama?
PM: I try to avoid reading too much into the public statements of coaches and players because any program worth its salt is always going to put up a unified front of positivity in the face of a loss like that. There’s always a risk of a hangover from a thrashing of that caliber. However, if we are going to take to heart the comments of Blake Anderson and his players, this group knows what that game was and knows not to let it linger.
Granted, moving on mentally can be quite a bit easier than moving on physically. Utah State was very fortunate to get out of Tuscaloosa without any serious injuries and will be able to recover without issue in the long term, but there’s certainly some soreness in the building this week after such a physical bout.
No. 5: As of the time I’m writing this question, USU is favored by 6.5, which feels like a small number. What’s your feel for how this one plays out?
PM: I’ve yet to see evidence of this Utah State team having the capacity for blowing out anybody it plays, even with the kind of talent advantage it will have this Saturday. Anderson has done a tremendous job of rebuilding the Aggies, but he’s never been known for designing teams capable of wire-to-wire dominance. Unless they come out feeling the need to make a statement, I’d expect the Aggies to stick to their winning formula. They’ll keep things simple earlier on to settle into the game – offering Weber State a window to score some victories on either side of the football – before turning up the heat as the game enters its later stages. This is a marathon runner, not a sprinter.
Ultimately, that line is probably a bit low, but it’s not as egregious as it may seem at first look. I have Utah State pulling away in the second half and claiming a comfortable if unspectacular victory. Something like 37-17.