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Utah State eyeing a return to 2018 on defense

Air Force fullback Taven Birdow, center, is stopped by Utah State safety Shaq Bond, left, and linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer in the second half of a Mountain West football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force won 31-7.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

LOGAN — Utah State’s defense was special at times in 2018.

The Aggies led the nation with 32 forced turnovers, thanks to 22 pass interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. They were second in the country in nonoffensive touchdowns scored (10), and third in turnover margin (+1.08) and defensive touchdowns (6). USU was also 16th among 130 FBS teams in third down conversion percentage defense (.330) and 19th in team passing efficiency defense (113.76).

Utah State finished the 2018 season ranked among the top 50 teams nationwide in five different defense-related statistical categories, including scoring defense (22.2 points per game), tackles for loss (7.3 per game), sacks (2.46 pere game) and rushing defense (143 yards per game). The Aggies set three school records, for interception returns for touchdowns (6), interception return yardage (475) and nonoffensive touchdowns. All of it helped propel Utah State to an 11-2 season, one of the best years in school history.

The 2019 season was a different story, though.

Where Utah State was great on defense in 2018, they often weren’t last year. Third down conversion defense dropped from 16th to 119th. Pass efficiency defense dropped from 19th to 70th. Turnover margin went from 1st to 78th. Name a defensive statistic and the Aggies lost ground last season. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Utah State’s defense is hoping to improve this year.

“We did some things wrong last year,” senior defensive end Justus Te’i said, “And we are making it a huge emphasis this year to not make those same mistakes.”

To accomplish that, the Aggies are returning to more of a 3-4 defensive scheme — something they ran often in 2018 — rather than the 4-2-5 scheme that was prevalent last season.

“We moved some guys around a bit to make sure our best 11 are always playing,” co-defensive coordinator Stacy Collins said. “We want to mix things up.”

The shift has been an adjustment for many. Up front, defensive ends such as Nick Heninger have shifted to outside linebacker and are learning a new position. Those edge rushers who didn’t move back, meanwhile, have been tasked with taking on even more, as have the defensive tackles in the middle.

“Taking on double teams is a lot different than taking on an island,” Te’i said.

Former safeties such as Troy Lefeged Jr. and Cash Gilliam have changed positions, moving up in the box as a nickel back and linebacker, respectively, and because of that adjustments continue into the secondary too. The back end is being rejiggered, both with new faces and coverages.

“We are probably going to run a few more multiple coverages out of it,” Collins explained. “We are going to run stuff we have in the past, but also some more combo coverages. We’ve really tried to identify our best guys on the back end and we will get them on the field. We’ve got some talented guys and some good battles going on.”

Boise State quarterback Jaylon Henderson (9) scrambles out of the pocket as Boise State’s John Ojukwu blocks Utah State defensive end Nick Heninger (42) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Logan.
Eli Lucero, Associated Press

None of the changes being made are so substantial as to suggest the Aggies are completely remaking the defense, though. Rather, every alteration is designed to bring out the best in the athletes.

“Structurally, it looks more different than it really is,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said. “Is it different at times? Yes. You take the defense and offense every single year and you adapt it to what you have personnel-wise, from your oldest and best players to your youngest players. That is exactly what Frank (Maile) and Stacy and the rest of the defensive coaches have done. I think they have put together a very good defense scheme.”

All with an eye on getting the Aggies back to playing the type of defense they’ve proven themselves capable of, a la 2018.

“We want to play to win,” said Collins. “That means getting takeaways. That means getting TFLs and sacks. That means stopping people on third down and playing great red zone defense. Those are our blueprints to success and that is what we need to do.”