Utah State made too many mistakes against Iowa, but showed the makings of a good team
The Aggies lost to the Hawkeyes 24-14, but there was evidence that Utah State may have a good team this season
Utah State head coach Blake Anderson is not one for moral victories.
He made that clear following the Aggies’ season-opening 24-14 loss to the No. 25-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday in Iowa City, when he didn’t try to mince words.
“Frustrated with the outcome,” Anderson said. “Clearly, we felt like that we had a plan in place that if we executed it, would’ve given us a chance to win. ... Keeping it close and beating the spread, all that stuff doesn’t fire me up a lot.”
What bothered Anderson most was the mistakes. Utah State finished with 10 penalties for 75 yards, half of which were personal fouls.
Moreover, USU had a legitimate chance at two interceptions and two fumble recoveries and came up with nothing.
Throw in an interception thrown by Aggie quarterback Cooper Legas — “I really babied that ball, floated it the air and gave the safety time to go over,” Legas said — and well, there was reason for Anderson to be bothered.
“It comes down to too many self inflicted mistakes, too many unforced errors,” he said. “You’re going to struggle to beat a bad team with the errors that we had today, much less a team of (Iowa’s) caliber. Five personal fouls are unacceptable. That can’t happen. We’ve been coaching that nonstop and it’s still showing up in key situations. It’s something we have to fix.
“... We had two missed opportunities for fumbles, two missed opportunities for interceptions. If you can create turnovers in this game, that swings everything differently. Offensively, we can’t turn the ball over and miss on two third down and shorts. Just when you look at it, and I made notes all throughout the game, this game could have been completely different.”
There were things Anderson was happy with, even with the loss. Things the Aggies did that inspired confidence for this season.
The team’s effort was one. The Aggies showed fight — a real competitiveness — from start to finish. Even after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter. It was a stark contrast to what happened a season ago, when the team all but gave up against Memphis in a 38-10 loss in the First Responder’s Bowl.
Rarely was an Iowa player tackled by a single Aggie on Saturday. Instead, gang tackling was in vogue. USU players consistently flew to the football on defense, linebacker MJ Tafisi and nickel back Anthony Switzer most of all.
Running backs Davon Booth, Robert Briggs and Rahsul Faison battled for extra yards on every carry — even if they didn’t get much purchase against the Iowa defensive front until late.
And line play was impressive, equal in many ways to Iowa. That was especially notable given Utah State was without Hale Motu’apuaka on defense and has only one returning starter on the offensive line.
Then there was the Aggies’ effectiveness and efficiency on both sides of the ball — particularly after the dismal first quarter.
Iowa outscored Utah State 14-0 in the first, and forced back-to-back three-and-outs by the Aggie offense to start the game.
“Coming out against a Big Ten team with big strong guys like Iowa, I think we were just not as locked in as we should have been,” Legas said.
After that, though, Utah State settled down and by the end of the contest was, statistically, better than Iowa in many ways.
USU accumulated more total yards (329 to 284) than Iowa, both through the air and on the ground — yes, Utah State out-gained Iowa on the ground.
The Aggies ran more plays (72 to 69), were more effective in the red zone (Utah State scored on both its red zone trips, while Iowa went 3 for 4) and were much more disruptive on defense (USU finished with nine tackles for loss, Iowa with just four).
“We showed at times that we could compete with that group (Iowa),” Anderson said. “And that’s a really, really well built football team.”
Likely the best team Utah State will play all season. And the Aggies were within striking distance until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when an Iowa touchdown — a 3-yard rush by running back Kaleb Johnson — gave the Hawkeyes a 24-6 lead that proved insurmountable.
The loss really came down to the mistakes. Utah State simply made too many to overcome the size and talent disparity that existed against Iowa.
“If we went back out there and started this game over and you eliminate the five personal fouls, the four missed turnover opportunities and the turnover on our part. You get rid of the missed (conversions) on 3-and-1, and guys really do what they are supposed to do and that is a completely different football game,” Anderson said. “It was self inflicted wounds and unforced errors ... things that require no talent. Those are the things that we’ve got to find a way to master right now. We haven’t done a good job of that.
“Whether it’s inexperience, lack of discipline, lack of attention, or maybe the guys just don’t understand how important it is, we have to play better. I’m not talking about throwing, catching and tackling. I’m talking about key mistakes in critical situations that extended drives for them. Missed opportunities for turnovers that could change the outcome of the game. Those are things we have to capitalize on and avoid and today we didn’t and we played a really good team and you are going to see an outcome like this every time with those kind of mistakes.”
The Aggies are a completely remade team this season with 59 new players on the roster — 26 Aggies made their debut for Utah State on Saturday and 15 played in their first Division 1 game — so few, if any, knew what to expect when the team took the field Saturday.
Even Anderson conceded he didn’t really know what kind of a team he has.
“You really don’t know (what you are) ... until you see an opponent of this caliber in this kind of game,” Anderson said.
After the game against Iowa, Anderson and company now know what they need to fix and what they need to work on. And there is plenty of it.
There wasn’t a moral victory in hanging tough against Iowa. The Aggies are 0-1 to start the season.
But there was also potential on display. That of a good football team.
“I saw that when we calm down and we play football, we can do some pretty good things on both sides of the ball,” Anderson said. “We blocked a punt today. We rushed for 116 yards against one of the best defenses we’ve seen. We out-gained (Iowa) and stopped them on fourth down. We were a few plays away from having a really, really good game.
“I learned that if we’ll keep keep working on the process and keep believing in what we’re doing, if we keep coaching them and if the guys buy into that fully, then we are capable of being a pretty good football team.”