The list of Utah State football players out for the remainder of the season due to injury is not exactly short and there are some significant names on it.
There is quarterback Logan Bonner, who can now be spotted on the sidelines on Saturdays doing his best coaching impression after having successful surgery on a broken foot.
“Proud of how the guys have continued to fight the last month. It has been hard. There hasn’t been a ton to show for it on the field and it is hard to stay the course when you don’t see the results show the way you want, but they did.” — USU coach Blake Anderson
There are a pair of defensive tackles in Phillip Paea and Seni Tuiaki, out with ACL and severe ankle injuries, respectively, who had established themselves as two of the Aggies’ best interior defensive linemen.
Include striker Anthony Switzer — who suffered an ACL injury at the very end of spring practice — and the Aggies have lost five starters (or close to it) to season-ending injuries this year.
The 2022 Aggies weren’t the deepest team to begin with and the loss of a handful of starting-caliber players hurts, especially as the team entered the season relatively young and inexperienced (more than 20 players saw their first game action in USU’s season opener against UConn).
“We have lost some guys, as we all know, that we aren’t going to get back,” Utah State coach Blake Anderson said. “We’re fortunate that this past week (against Air Force) we didn’t lose any more.”
The Aggies have proven remarkably resilient in the face of those losses, though.
Cooper Legas has more than filled in for Bonner, leading Utah State to its two best offensive outings of the season in successive weeks.
Against Air Force, specifically, the Legas-led Aggies racked up 414 yards of offense (215 passing and 199 rushing) after entering the game averaging 355 yards per game (202 passing and 153 rushing).
Each loss has been a blow for Utah State. That is indisputable.
Utah State also produced six offensive plays of at least 20 yards in the game after having recorded just nine such plays in its previous three games combined.
Legas isn’t the only player who has filled in admirably.
Wide receiver Terrell Vaughn was been one of the Aggies’ best playmakers since the loss of Van Leeuwen, racking up 172 receiving yards and three touchdowns in three games. Prior to that he had tallied just 42 receiving yards and zero touchdowns in the first two games of the season.
Young defensive tackles Tavian Coleman and Bo Maile have filled in well for Paea and Tuiaki, too. Against Air Force, Coleman — a sophomore — had a career-high five tackles, while Maile — a redshirt freshman — tied his career high with one tackle.
At striker, Kaleo Neves has quickly become one of the Aggies’ most improved defenders, and Omari Okeke has also quietly made an impact.
All told, the Aggies have proven capable of filling the holes created by season-ending injuries, though Utah State can ill afford any more serious injuries with six games to go.
“I’ve had worse years in terms of season-ending injuries,” Anderson said. “This time of the season, midway through, we are pretty fortunate in the sense that the injury bug hasn’t gone further along. I’ve been in the shape before where we had double-digit season-ending injuries and had to figure out a way to finish the year, to get to the finish line.
“... I’m hoping that we can stay healthy. We are in pretty good shape right now, but we don’t have a lot of room to lose more. We are thin at several positions. So we have to be really smart, also about our practice habits, not to create problems that we don’t have already.”
There is some good news on the injury front.
Offensive lineman Alfred Edwards returned from injury against Air Force — he missed the game against BYU — and made an immediate impact, following the pattern set by defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka and defensive end Byron Vaughns.
(Motu’apuaka missed USU’s game against Weber State with an injury but has played in every game since; Vaughns did not play against UNLV with a high ankle sprain but returned the next week and remains an impact player).
Tight end Broc Lane and cornerback Michael Anyanwu are also expected back, potentially as soon as Saturday’s game against rival Colorado State.
“I think we are going to get guys back, not lose them,” Anderson said.
The Aggies need all the help they can get if they are to continue to turn their season around.
With its win over Air Force, Utah State stayed in the hunt for another Mountain West title, as well as in the race for bowl eligibility, but the Aggies’ margin for error is small.
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Utah State has only a 25.5% chance of winning six games this season — the requirement for bowl eligibility — a 3.1% chance of winning the Mountain Division and a 0.7% chance of winning the MW.
By beating the Falcons, though, the Aggies have a chance to prove the projections wrong.
“Proud of how the guys have continued to fight the last month. It has been hard,” Anderson said. “There hasn’t been a ton to show for it on the field and it is hard to stay the course when you don’t see the results show the way you want, but they did.
“Hopefully (the win over Air Force will) be something that can propel us to more wins and we can stack two on top of this one. And then we’ll start worrying about three (wins) later.”