MADISON, Wis. — Two changes for the Utah State football program this offseason — adding seven junior-college players and the offense being handed over to first-year coordinator David Yost — stood out for the Aggies on Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
For a short time against the No. 9 Badgers on Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium, those changes helped net a 10-point edge. Wisconsin's subsequent 59 unanswered points showed that plenty more growing will be needed, though, as the Aggies fell to Wisconsin, 59-10.
"There’s a lot of things we’ve done over the last nine months to fix this thing," Utah State coach Matt Wells said, whose team has lost six straight games and eight of nine dating back to last season. After a 10-win season in 2014, the Aggies have had two straight losing campaigns.
"Unfortunately, there were some growing pains in terms of that. The improvement that we’re going to demand and look for over the next few weeks hopefully will set us on the track to compete in the Mountain West," Wells said.
There were glimpses of that growth in the first half.
The Aggies' offense, under Yost, built a 10-0 first-quarter lead on a 25-yard field goal from Dominik Eberle and a 12-yard LaJuan Hunt touchdown following a Wisconsin fumble.
“We keep talking about making a first down to get the momentum and the pace going. We made first downs and we played catch and actually hit a few runs and broke a few arm tackles. It gave us some good momentum early,” Wells said.
The Utah State defense also had a strong first half against Wisconsin, with all three of its sacks coming in the first 30 minutes.
“We were just flying around having fun,” junior safety Gaje Ferguson said. “It was just us executing and us playing with a lot of energy.”
But the inconsistency that has plagued the Aggies the past two years finally caught up with them in the second half, as the Badgers scored seven touchdowns on eight second-half possessions while forcing senior quarterback Kent Myers into three interceptions. Two in those came in the final two quarters.
The Aggies' offense struggled to string drives together, as evidenced by USU converting only 5 of 16 third downs. Wisconsin, meanwhile, converted 8 of 12, including five straight on the Badgers' first touchdown drive, a 15-play, 79-yard drive in the second quarter that got Wisconsin's momentum building.
"We just weren’t executing the calls that our coach was calling. The Badgers have a great defense, a great team, and they just had the better of us on third downs," Hunt said.
Defensively, the Aggies fell apart in the third quarter, giving up four touchdowns and 268 yards of total offense in the period.
"A bad third quarter, you can’t stop a down. Basically they were running downhill with a short field every time. No response by the offense. Got to stop the run, that’s the bottom line," Wells said.
The coach was impressed, though, with a new-look offensive line that featured five new starters in center Quin Ficklin (a BYU transfer), guards Moroni Iniquez and Rob Castaneda and tackles Sean Taylor and Roman Andrus.
“We’re going to grow up real quick. We won’t face a better team than that probably all year. I’m proud of those kids. We’re going to be just fine on the O-line,” Wells said. The Aggies gave up one sack to Wisconsin, though Myers was pressured more in the second half.
“I thought they actually held their own and actually did a nice job. We couldn’t get open there at the end and I think some of the protection breaks down, but I thought those five linemen responded in a pretty positive way,” the coach said.
Just how much change there is with the Aggies' program could be seen among the new junior-college players. Linebacker Suli Tamaivena tied for the team lead with seven tackles, and his fumble recovery and 13-yard return set up the first Utah State touchdown of the year.
Linebacker Louy Compton had a sack, two tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry. "You saw him all over the field," Wells said.
Iniquez got the start at left guard.
"We’ve got to grow some guys up just in terms of being youthful and inexperienced, but we’ve got talented kids. You made mention of all the first-time starters. That’s a lot. Somebody told me even before we came in here that there’s 13 or 14 starters back and maybe only five of them started out of them," Wells said.