The Utah State Aggies (0-1) are saying all the right things ahead of Saturday night’s home opener against the Idaho State Bengals (0-1).
Just ask head coach Blake Anderson.
“All they got to do is watch how well these guys (Idaho State) played San Diego State. And remember last year, even though there’s a lot of guys in the room that weren’t here,” Anderson said, referencing USU’s upset loss at home to Weber State. “I mean, it’s recent history and we don’t want to repeat it.
Aggies on the air
Utah State (0-1)
vs. Idaho State (0-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
Radio: Aggie Sports Network
“You got to respect every opponent in the process of every week and this team (Idaho State) is no different than any other. If we don’t play our best football, we deserve to get beat. That doesn’t doesn’t matter who you’re playing. And these guys will come in with a lot of confidence from how they played against San Diego State.
“I would expect that they went in (to the game) with not really super high expectations and probably came out of it with ridiculously high expectations about what’s possible because of how well they played. So we’re gonna get the best shot.”
But are the Aggies really in danger of losing to one of the worst FCS programs in recent memory?
That is an appropriate description of the Bengals, who won just one game in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons and have had only four winning seasons since 2000.
Idaho State is on its third coach in three seasons, with Cody Hawkins now at the helm, and hasn’t defeated a current FBS opponent since 1994, when the Bengals defeated Boise State. Of course, those Broncos were then an FCS team in the Big Sky Conference.
Based on how the Bengals played against the Aztecs last weekend, though, ISU looks capable of being a genuine threat to the Aggies.
In their first game under Hawkins, the Bengals scored as many points as they had in all but one game last season and tied the program record for most points scored against an FBS opponent. And they did so against an SDSU program known for its defense.
Moreover, the Bengals lead the nation in pass attempts per game after Week 1, an attack that recorded 309 yards and two touchdowns and had three receivers record at least 50 yards receiving on five or more catches. All told, 11 Bengals caught a pass against the Aztecs.
“They’re a pass RPO-based team,” Anderson said. “They’ve got really good wideouts spread out. Both of those quarterbacks, I thought both came in and did a really good job. You take away a few plays here and there and that game changes.
“I think they want to spread you out, play quick, RPO and screen you to death. Very similar to the approach we took against Iowa, try to play you out in space. They executed the plan really well (against the Aztecs).”
The thing is, the Bengals could be better too, as quarterbacks Jordan Cooke and Hunter Hays combined to throw three interceptions and the rushing attack was virtually nonexistent.
“I think I always have high expectations for how our guys are going to compete, prepare, and perform, and we had a lot of mistakes that we could have corrected,” Hawkins said in his weekly press conference. “I don’t think we played particularly well.
“I thought you could see there were a lot of first-game jitters and guys that don’t have a lot of college experience, probably evidently nervous. But they played hard and they played together and they corrected mistakes and they overcame adversity and that made me proud.”
The Bengals’ defense, meanwhile, is a unique one. ISU runs a 3-3-5 defense, recently popularized by Big 12 teams like Iowa State and TCU. The scheme relies heavily on speedy defenders, flexibility and disguise, hoping to confuse opposing quarterbacks into making mistakes.
The Aztecs tried to counter the scheme with a strong rushing attack and that ultimately proved successful, though quarterback Jalen Mayden only managed to throw for 85 yards and ISU created four genuine chances at turnovers, converting one (an interception).
The Aggies have plenty of potential in the backfield with running back Robert Briggs, Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison, but struggled against Iowa to get much of a ground game going.
“They’re downhill players,” Anderson said of the Bengals’ defense. “And they play physical, so it’s going to look different than Iowa, but it is just as frustrating of a matchup because they can get to so many things from that alignment,” Anderson said of ISU’s defense. “We’re going to have to cover bodies up, really ID who the threats are.
“We’re going to have to utilize the perimeter really, really well, protect the quarterback and maybe the hardest part with the quarterback is all the different variations of coverage that can come from one very basic look. And (Cooper Legas) is going to have to dissect that and work through that on the run post snap to push the ball into the safest areas of the field.”
Idaho State has a healthy respect for Utah State’s defense, and really just a healthy respect for the Aggies across the board.
“Their defense on the back end is not quite as diverse as San Diego State, but they’re probably more disciplined,” Hawkins said. “Their front is not going to create as many problems on a chalkboard, but they’ll create a lot more problems on the field, if you know what that means.
“It means they’re not going to be exotic, but, man, their guy who stays in the A gap, that dude’s staying in the A gap, he’s not going to move. Really solid (defensive) front. I think they’re going to take away a lot of the easy throws from the quarterback.”
Should the Aggies be wary of the Bengals? Given recent history, i.e. last year’s loss to Weber State, and the fact that USU has almost a completely new team this season, one that is still figuring itself out, the Aggies would be smart to be.
But the talent advantage lies firmly with USU and both teams know it.
“They got some good players,” Hawkins said. “They got some guys on their team that could play in the SEC. They just didn’t put it together the way they wanted to last year. So, hey, it’s going to be a different front that we’re going to see on offense and a much different offensive attack.
“So we’re going to be under much different forms of stress than we were last weekend. It’ll be a completely different game, so the performance will probably be completely different in many respects.”