Utah State football report card: Aggies drop yet another game but show glimpses of potential

For the first time since 2007, the Utah State Aggies have started a season 0-4. USU lost to Fresno State 35-16 Saturday afternoon in Logan.

Game 1 of the Frank Maile era was largely no different from the final three games of the Gary Andersen era. The Aggies were once again outplayed and soundly defeated by a conference foe.

And yet the Aggies showed glimpses on offense, defense and special teams of the team that they hoped to be entering the season.

Those glimpses weren’t enough against the Bulldogs, but for perhaps the first time all year, there may be a few reasons for optimism for Utah State football.

Here are the grades for Utah State’s fourth game of the season:

Offense

One of the most difficult aspects of grading is that the bad always outweighs the good. Always. And that was the case for the Aggies’ offense Saturday.

USU had moments that were genuinely good offensively against Fresno State.

The Aggies’ rushing attack, a point of emphasis, per Maile, was effective, even better than that. It wasn’t great, which Maile conceded, but for really the first time this season USU looked good running the ball.

Much of that was due to Jaylen Warren. Warren had a season-best outing and finished with a game-high 136 yards and a touchdown. Thanks to a career-long 86-yard run, Warren averaged 15.1 yards per carry.

Unlike what happened against Boise State in the season opener, when Warren was the only effective USU runner, he wasn’t alone this time.

Devonta’e Henry-Cole had a strong performance as a change-of-pace back and rushed for a season-high 73 yards, which included a season-long run of 24 yards.

Quarterback Jason Shelley rushed for 41 yards himself, or at least he would have if not for sack yardage, and showed multiple times in the game that he can be dangerous when involved in the rushing attack.

That the run game was so improved shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Fresno State came into the game surrendering 238 yards on the ground a contest (that was 5 yards worse than Utah State). Still, with an effective run game it appeared Utah State had finally found an identity on offense.

It was all outweighed by another poor passing game and a pair of fumbles.

For the fourth consecutive week, the Aggies struggled to get anything going through the air. Shelley completed only 9 of 24 passes — a 37.5% completion percentage — for 144 yards. He was sacked six times and hurried just as many times.

There were plenty of underthrown balls, some of which worked out in Utah State’s favor, as well a few overthrown ones and passes that were simply dropped. In total, only four Aggie receivers caught a pass, and none had more than three receptions.

The Aggies’ passing game woes were only exacerbated by a pair of fumbles, one by Warren, the other by Henry-Cole. Both turnovers brought promising offensive drives to abrupt ends.

“Those takeaways in the run game switched the momentum at crucial moments,” said Maile.

Throw in a bad snap at Fresno State’s 1-yard line — a miscue that forced Utah State to settle for a field goal rather than score a touchdown — and the Aggies left multiple touchdowns on the field. No team can do that and get a favorable grade.

Grade: D

Defense

Looking at just the numbers, Utah State’s defense struggled mightily against Fresno State.

The Aggies surrendered 541 yards of total offense and let the Bulldogs average 7.2 yards per play and convert 25 first downs. FSU quarterback Jake Haener had the best game of his career, throwing for a career-high 422 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Jalen Cropper had 10 receptions for 202 yards and three scores, while running back Ronnie Rivers rushed for 132 yards and a score.

The Bulldogs scored three touchdowns in a single quarter and finished with 35 points, three points better than their season average.

By just those numbers, it was another rough day for the Aggies.

The numbers in this case, however, do not tell the complete story. Utah State’s defense played its most complete game of the season Saturday.

“I don’t think the score reflected how we played on the field,” linebacker AJ Vongphachanh said. “We had the energy. Run-wise, I think we were able to stop the run effectively, then later in the game we got them off the field on third downs.”

Vongphachanh wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

Maile echoed Vongphachanh, noting, ”Defensively, I thought we started strong. Stopping the run was crucial to the game plan, stopping (Rivers). I thought we started the game strong (doing that).”

For much of the game, the Aggies did what they wanted to do defensively. Fresno State either turned the ball over or was forced to punt on 9 of 14 offensive possessions. Utah State only gave up a combined 14 total points in the first, third and fourth quarters and the Aggies’ defense forced their first two turnovers of the season, an interception by Shaq Bond and a forced fumble by Vongphachanh.

All of that was unfortunately outweighed by a disastrous second quarter, where Haener and Cropper simply picked apart the Aggies’ defense.

It was big plays again — Cropper had touchdown receptions of 44 and 59 yards, while Josh Kelly added a 71-yard touchdown reception — that killed Utah State, but after three weeks of struggling for the majority of games, Utah State showed improvement.

“It starts with limiting the plays — the big plays, the explosive plays,” Vongphachanh said. “Cleaning up the little things we need to clean up and going from there. We had the energy. But again, it comes down to the bigger plays.”

Grade: C-

Special Teams

The Aggies couldn’t have been much better on special teams. It is as simple as that. Where in previous games special teams were almost a non-factor, they were incredibly impactful against Fresno State.

It all started with Savon Scarver’s 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The return came in the wake of a Fresno State touchdown early in the first quarter, a score that wrestled an early 6-0 lead away from USU.

Scarver wrenched it right back, running right through the Bulldogs’ coverage team. It was Scarver’s sixth kickoff return for a touchdown in his career, a new school record. Scarver now has the second most kickoff returns for a touchdown in Mountain West Conference history and is tied for the fifth most in NCAA history. The NCAA and MWC record is seven.

Scarver wasn’t the only standout on special teams, though. Freshman punter Stephen Kotsanlee had a career performance that included a career-long 63 yard punt and two punts downed inside the 5-yard line.

Throw in a 38-yard field goal by Connor Coles, not to mention the the fact that Fresno State produced nothing of note on its end, and the Aggies’ special teams did just about everything right Saturday.

Grade: A+

Overall

Utah State is still not good. At 0-4, the Aggies are off to the worst start by any USU team in over a decade.

There were plenty of mistakes made against Fresno State, mistakes that cost Utah State a chance at victory. For possibly the first time all season, though, there were also glimpses of improvement. Reasons to hope. Building upon those is the emphasis going forward.

With only four games remaining this season, it simply has to be.

“There is some stuff to build on,” Maile said. “We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be better coaches. We’ve got to coach this a little cleaner. But I thought there were some positives there. There were things we needed to establish that we weren’t able to do this year offensively and now there is some stuff to build on. There are some positives moving forward that can catapult us to where we need to be.”

Grade: C-

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