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Who is to blame for Utah State’s 0-2 start?

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San Diego State running back Greg Bell (34) carries the ball as Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (98) defends during the first half of a Mountain West college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

It was written all over Gary Andersen’s face following Utah State’s loss to San Diego State. You could see it in Shaq Bond’s eyes, even hear it Deven Thompkins’ voice.

This wasn’t how this year was supposed to go.

“We’ve discussed where we are, why we are where we are and what we have to do to move forward to put us in a position to play competitive football. That has not happened the first two weeks and I am not a believer in hiding from that.” — USU coach Gary Andersen

After the first two weeks of the 2020 season, Utah State is 0-2, an extremely uncompetitive 0-2 at that, following blowout losses to Boise State and San Diego State. The Broncos and Aztecs laid it on the Aggies in consecutive weeks, outscoring USU by a combined 59 points.

It wasn’t all that surprising that Utah State lost to Boise State in the season opener. The Aggies are 5-20 all time against the Broncos, with only one win against Boise State since joining the Mountain West Conference in 2013. USU has struggled historically against the Aztecs, too, having won just two games in 15 tries all time.

It was, rather, the way in which Utah State lost that elicited visible (and audible) emotions from Andersen, Bond and Thompkins. Outside of a competitive third quarter against Boise State, and a few timely defensive stops in the first half against San Diego State, the Aggies have been basically run off the field.

Uncompetitive is really the best way to describe it and Andersen, now in his second year as head coach at Utah State, agrees.

“We’ve discussed where we are, why we are where we are and what we have to do to move forward to put us in a position to play competitive football. That has not happened the first two weeks and I am not a believer in hiding from that,” he said.

So what has gone wrong? Who’s to blame?

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Utah State quarterback Andrew Peasley (6) is pulled to the ground by Boise State cornerback Jalen Walker (2) as teammates Boise State safety Jl Skinner (0) and Boise State linebacker Ezekiel Noa (7) close in during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won 42-13.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

The easy answer is the Aggies’ offense — no single player or position group, but the entire offense, from coordinator Bodie Reeder all the way down the line.

Statistically through two games, Utah State has the worst attack in the Mountain West Conference, and it is across the board.

  • USU has the worst scoring offense among the conference’s 12 teams, at 10 points per game.
  • The Aggies have the worst passing attack, excluding triple-option running Air Force, with an average of 102 yards per game. The Aggies have thrown a single touchdown, have completed only 55% of their pass attempts and are averaging 3.5 yards per pass (you read that right).
  • Utah State also boasts the worst total offense, thanks to an average of 209 yards per game, three total touchdowns and an average 3.3 yards per play.
  • USU’s rushing attack isn’t horrible, ranked No. 9 in the MW, but even that isn’t exactly good, or even average.

“Obviously this is not the start we wanted offensively,” Reeder said. “Ultimately it boils down to scoring points and we have to find a way to score more points.”

Let’s say you want to give the Aggies’ offense a break, though. Reeder is the team’s third offensive coordinator in as many years, quarterback Jason Shelley only joined the team in July, star running back Jaylen Warren missed the entire San Diego State game and the offensive line is very much in flux and quite young to boot.

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San Diego State running back Greg Bell (34) is tackled by Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh (98) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

Can USU’s defense take the blame? You can certainly make that argument.

“Defensively we’ve struggled,” Andersen said.

Just how badly?

  • Utah State has the worst scoring defense in the conference, having given up 11 touchdowns and an average of 40 points per game.
  • The team’s rushing defense is currently the worst in the MW, as the Aggies have given up an average of 289 yards per game, six touchdowns per contest and 6.6 yards per carry.
  • USU has the second worst total defense, ahead of only New Mexico. The Aggies have surrendered an average of 510 yards per game and have allowed a conference-worst 11 scores.
  • The team’s pass defense has been OK, and is currently the sixth-best in the conference, but neither Boise State nor San Diego State needed to pass the ball in order to be successful.

Of course, the Broncos and Aztecs are arguably the two best teams in the MW, and were picked by media in the preseason to win their respective divisions. Most teams would struggle to contain them.

“We’ve played two of the top teams in this league and that is always a challenge,” co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile said. “Physicality and effort are not the problem.”

Still, the 0-2 start isn’t what USU was hoping for, regardless of the opponents faced, so who should shoulder the blame for the Aggies’ early season struggles?

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Utah State coach Gary Andersen watches the team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against San Diego State, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

That would be Andersen and his coaching staff, and Andersen wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What we’ve had in the first (two) games is not good enough and that is on me,” he said. “When it is bad, it is going to be on myself and I put a lot of responsibilities on my position coaches and coordinators.”

Both Maile and Reeder proved that to be true, each taking full responsibility for their respective units’ struggles.

“Back-to-back weeks we failed as coaches,” said Maile. “We failed to get them ready with fundamentals, things like tackling and blitz tracks. We had too many holes with fits when we brought pressure. When you play good teams there is no room for error. (Boise State and San Diego State) found all the holes and that is on us as coaches.”

“I’m going to take 100% responsibility for it,” added Reeder. “We have to give (our guys) a chance.”

Excuses are there to be had for everyone, but Andersen won’t have any of them.

“There are a lot of ways, especially this year to say it is OK,” he said. “There are some definite challenges. There is an excuse for youth, an excuse for time wasted (because of COVID-19), and an excuse for being a developmental program.

“None of those things matter. The staff has to be able to put kids in the position to do things at the best of their ability. It is like I’ve said throughout this whole process, these are trying times and it is a battle, but you have to continually be aggressive.

“I’m a big believer in letting the kids understand why they are where they are, but as coaches, we have to accept the blame and responsibility. We are the adults in the room. These 18, 19 and 20-year olds, they are young men. These are times that they can learn lessons, both in football and in life. Our job as coaches, when you get in these spots, is to help young men grow. That is the challenge that we have.”

That and finding a way to avoid an 0-3 start to the season Thursday night in Reno, Nevada.