LOGAN — Wake Forest defensive back Essang Bassey had the play covered.
Thirty-one seconds remained in the first half of Utah State’s season opener against the Demon Deacons — played on Aug. 30 — and Bassey was draped all over USU wide receiver Siaosi Mariner as he ran into the back corner of the end zone.
There was little chance Mariner would be able to make the catch, on a third-and-5 play from the Wake Forest 17-yard line.
Except he did.
That touchdown was the first of many contested catches Aggie receivers have made through the opening three games of the season.
Against Stony Brook, it was Mariner again, along with Derek Wright, Caleb Repp and Deven Thompkins.
In the win over San Diego State, Savon Scarver got in on the action, as did Carson Terrell.
Contested catches have become a hallmark of the Utah State receiving corps, and those pass catchers have helped the Aggies’ offense to be one of the best in the nation.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Colorado State, Utah State ranks sixth in the country in total offense, with an average of 562.7 yards per game.
When it comes to passing offense alone, the Aggies are fifth in the country (367.0 ypg) and quarterback Jordan Love is fourth in completions per game (29.3), fifth in passing yards (334.3 ypg) and 30th in completion percentage (.682).
That last statistic would most assuredly be worse, if not for the contested catches made routine by Utah State’s wide receivers and tight ends.
Their success in those situations all starts in practice, under the guidance of Jason Phillips.
As Utah State’s passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach, Phillips is behind many of the drills that have made the Aggies adept at the contested catch.
“We work highly contested drills, and (Phillips) does a good job of making our drills very game-like so when we get out there it’s not something we haven’t seen before,” said Mariner. “It’s something we’ve practiced so it has become like second nature to us.”
“He has us doing contested catch (drills), all kinds of catches,” Scarver added. “Outside the body, low and behind, one handers, everything. We do that every practice. It is really just routine.”
The goal has been to simulate game-type situations as much as possible.
That can be difficult to do, with live bodies in particular, so pop-up dummies and bags are regularly used, as are some timely arm and shoulder tugging.
“We try to make that as realistic as possible,” said Phillips.
So far, it is working, but for as much success as they are having, Utah State’s receiving corps doesn’t take a whole lot of pride in their contested catches.
“It’s something you should do, something you’re supposed to do,” Mariner said. “If you play receiver, your job is to make those types of catches.”
It doesn’t help that there is little time to bask in one’s success, either, thanks to the sheer speed of the Utah State attack.
“I’m not gonna lie, our offense is so fast you don’t really have time to think about it,” said Terrell. “You make a play and move on to the next one. You don’t really have time to notice what you did.”
Then there is the fact that with Love as their quarterback, success for each contested catch is truly shared.
“Jordan is going to put the ball wherever it needs to be and it is their job to complete his job,” said Phillips. “His job is to put it there and our job is to make sure we catch the football. Those two elements work hand in hand.”
Still, it takes a special player to be able to make those types of plays on a regular basis.
“It takes a special want to,” Phillips said. “A guy has to want to go out there and do something and we talk about that all the time. They have to want to do it and I think we have a good group of kids who all want to go out and perform.”
Their next chance will be Saturday night, against Colorado State.
The Rams have gotten off to a slow start to the season at 1-3 overall and have been plagued by injuries.
Starting quarterback Collin Hill is out for the year with an ACL tear, and leading rusher Marvin Kinsey Jr. and top receiver Warren Jackson are both questionable for Saturday.
Colorado State has scored 30-plus points in every game this season, though, and with Nebraska transfer Patrick O’Brien under center, a high-scoring affair is to be expected.
“If you look at the numbers and you take those for what they’re worth after a few football games, you’d look and say there’s a lot of weapons on offense on both sides,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said. “The defenses have done some good things at times, but the offenses should have more body blows and more haymakers. And that would be on both sides. So, away we go. We’ll sit down and see what happens.”
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Aggies on the air
Colorado State (1-3) at Utah State (2-1)
Maverik Stadium, Logan
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KZNS 1280 AM/97.5 FM