A week and a day after falling at conference rival Air Force, Utah State hosted Sun Belt power James Madison with a chance to get back in the win column but came up short 45-38.
The Aggies have now lost back-to-back games and five of their last six going back to 2022.
The latest loss was similar to most of those that came before it, with Utah State (1-3) being soundly outplayed at the outset, only to improve significantly as the game went on and nearly rally to an improbable victory.
Here are three takeaways from the Aggies’ latest setback:
Struggles in the trenches
It was clear from almost the first play from scrimmage Saturday night that Utah State wasn’t as good on the defensive front as James Madison was on its offensive line.
The same held true when things were switched a series later, too, the Aggies on offense and the Dukes on defense.
For nearly the entire first half, the Dukes’ offensive and defensive lines had their way with their Aggie counterparts, outside of a few moments here and there by USU.
The stats back it up, and not just for the first half, as JMU was the better team on the ground on offense (142 yards rushing compared to 98 yards on the ground by USU) and the far more disruptive defense (five sacks and 12 tackles for loss, compared to a sack and six tackles for loss by the Aggies).
Utah State did get better as the game progressed, with adjustments following halftime making a real difference.
Notably, USU started getting significant pressure on JMU quarterback Jordan McCloud and stymied what had otherwise been an effective complementary rushing attack, but the early struggles up front proved too much to overcome.
Where is the consistency for the Aggies’ defense?
While everything begins and ends in football in the trenches — as demonstrated Saturday night — the entire USU defense struggled early on against James Madison.
The secondary was routinely carved up, particularly on the outsides, by McCloud in the first half (he finished the game with 364 yards passing, four touchdowns and two interceptions).
The Aggies gave up 360 yards of total offense in the first half alone, including 264 through the air.
Things shifted in the second half, though, when the Aggies put more defensive backs on the field and played with just a single true linebacker after an injury to MJ Tafisi.
It was an adjustment that paid off.
James Madison struggled to move the ball throughout the second half, as it turned the ball over and punted three times each after not punting the entire first half.
The drastic difference was hard to understand. At one moment the Aggies’ defense looked abysmal, but a quarter later USU looked capable of stopping anyone. Still, the Aggies’ Jekyll and Hyde performance led them to surrender 45 points and 506 yards in the end.
McCae Hillstead is more than just potential
True freshman quarterback McCae Hillstead showed multiple times why Blake Anderson and company have elected to go with him as QB1 moving forward rather than veteran Cooper Legas.
When he wasn’t being pressured or harassed, in or out of the pocket, Hillstead showcased the arm talent that has engendered so much excitement in Logan, including a 64-yard bomb to wide receiver Colby Bowman in the second quarter.
Perhaps the most impressive showing by Hillstead, though, was immediately out of the halftime break.
The Skyridge High product completed multiple passes into tight windows during an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive, showing timing, arm strength and feel reminiscent of a veteran quarterback.
The 20-yard scoring strike to Terrell Vaughn was a thing of beauty.
Hillstead finished the game having completed 25 of 47 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns (as well as three interceptions), looking at the least like the Aggies’ best quarterback since Logan Bonner in 2021.
And as only a true freshman, the sky appears to be the limit.