Utah State - Notes And Thoughts On The Aggie Defense

Utah State - Notes And Thoughts On The Aggie Defense

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Utah State - Notes And Thoughts On The Aggie Defense

Michigan State opens up the 2018 season in less than a week.  Utah State visits Spartan Stadium on Friday night. Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Aggie defense.

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They play football in the Mountain West.

Boise State doesn’t mess around.

San Diego State has always had strong, explosive, and tough teams.

Air Force knows how to frustrate blue bloods that have more talent.

And Utah State isn’t Weber State.

Although we could probably come up with another school to denigrate rather than Weber State because of this –

THE GARY ANDERSEN ERA

From 2009-2012, Gary Andersen led Utah State to an overall record of 26-24 and a conference record of 16-13 (although the Aggies were still a member of the WAC during that era).

Andersen went 11-2 in 2012, won the WAC, won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 41-15 over the 9-3 Toledo Rockets and finished the season as the #17 and #16 team in the nation in the Coaches and AP polls.

On the heels of that breakthrough season with the Aggies, Andersen headed for Wisconsin after Bret Bielema went to find whatever it was that he was looking for in Arkansas.

Utah State has had a hard time recapturing that magic since Andersen’s departure.

However, they haven’t exactly folded up the program.

It’s worth a mention, too, that John L Smith spent three seasons as Utah State’s head coach before he rejuvenated Louisville’s football program – which, of course, led to John L Smith’s arrival in East Lansing.

THE MATT WELLS ERA

After Andersen left for Madison, Matt Wells took over and has had the following run with the Aggies:

  • 2013: 9-5; Mountain West Champions; won the Poinsettia Bowl 21-14 over 12-1 Northern Illinois.
  • 2014: 10-4; 3rd place finish in Mountain West; won the New Mexico Bowl 21-6 over the UTEP Miners.
  • 2015: 6-7; tied for 2nd place in the new Mountain Division of the Mountain West; lost in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 23-21 to the Terry Bowden-led Akron Zips.
  • 2016: 3-9; 6th place in the Mountain Division; no bowl game.
  • 2017: 6-7; 4th place in the Mountain Division; lost in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl 26-20 to New Mexico State.

So, after winning 19 games in his first two seasons, Wells has had three straight losing seasons.

Still, the Aggies have been to four bowl games in the last five seasons.

The only teams in the Mountain West that have shown more consistency over the last five or six years have been Boise State and San Diego State.

This is an important season for Matt Wells.

And that means that this is an important opener for Wells.

It sounds familiar – the Aggies had a debacle of a season in 2016 with a 3-9 record and followed that up with a nice turnaround last year.

Can Utah State build on that momentum from 2017 and get back to being a player in the Mountain West?

THE AGGIE DEFENSE

Here’s the good news for Utah State fans – there are nine defensive starters from last year’s team that will be on the field this coming Friday night at Spartan Stadium.

Here’s the good news for Michigan State fans – Utah State’s 2017 defense was not particularly stout.

In 2017, Utah State didn’t have much of a pass rush.

In 2017, Utah State’s rushing defense was pretty weak.

In 2017, Utah State’s pass defense was actually pretty impressive.

When we look at the statistical breakdown of Utah State’s defense from 2017, it doesn’t strike us as fearsome:

  • Team Defense – 7th overall in the Mountain West.
  • Scoring Defense – 26.9 points per game, 5th in the Mountain West.
  • Rushing Defense – 217.2 yards per game, 9th in the Mountain West.
  • Passing Defense – 170.1 yards per game, 4th in the Mountain West.

However, Utah State was pretty strong when it came to creating turnovers.

Utah State created 29 turnovers – compared to the 23 turnovers that Michigan State created in 2017.

And, the Aggies were second in the Mountain West when it came to 3rd down conversion on defense.

Leading tackler Suli Tamaivena is back at one linebacker position.

Chase Christansen is another tough linebacker who had 71 stops last season and he’s back.

Jalen Davis was one of their stars in the secondary at corner and he’s graduated along with Dallin Leavitt at safety.

The two of them had nine of the team’s 13 picks.

Gone from last season’s defensive front is end Ian Togiai and last year’s front didn’t do much of anything at all.

What does all of this mumbo jumbo mean?

CAN MICHIGAN STATE POUND AND PROTECT?

If we’re going by stats, Utah State is weak in the trenches on defense.

That suggests that Mark Staten’s Spartan offensive line could get the season started with a powerful and confidence-boosting evening.

Can the Spartan line assert itself against a front that gave up 217 yards a game last season and finished 9th in the Mountain West?

Spartan fans would like to think so.

Can LJ Scott capitalize if there is room to run?

Will LJ Scott treat the football like it’s a disease or like it’s a faberge egg?

Can Michigan State – and Brian Lewerke, specifically – avoid turning the ball over?

When Lewerke lunged awkwardly early in the game last season against Notre Dame and gave the ball over to the Irish in what was a series of game-changing gaffes by the Spartans, it was hard to watch.

However, a year later, that exact period in that game might end up paying dividends for Lewerke and the Spartans.

Protecting the ball and avoiding the urge to do something risky that might give the opponent the ball deep in Spartan territory are going to be two keys as Michigan State goes up against a defense it should move the ball on.

Brian Lewerke learned lessons all season long in 2017 and this game will give him his first opportunity in 2018 to demonstrate that he’s going to keep unforced errors to a minimum while finding opportunities for explosive plays.

In a season-opener, it’s never a surprise to see that a team needs a little bit of time to shake off the rust.

But the Spartans are going up against a defense that has only one, real hope for the evening if it wants to shut Michigan State down – that Michigan State is sloppy with the ball and turns it over.

If Lewerke and the Spartans turn the ball over more than once and are sloppy enough to allow Utah State to make it a tough, close game, I think that the most-surprised people would be Lewerke and the Spartans.

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