Among English scholars, there’s some debate about the true meaning of one of Frost’s most famous poems. While a typical reading implies a moral of choosing your own path, a number of scholars suggest the poem is a caution to the pitfall of indecision.
I say it’s an encapsulation of Utah State football’s past two seasons.
Last year’s Aggie squad delivered one of the greatest seasons in the program history. Then-sophomore QB Jordan Love led one of the nation’s top offenses as USU frequently steamrolled opponents and rendered fourth quarters all but unnecessary. That success culminated in a showdown with Boise State in the final week of the regular season with a spot in the Mountain West title game on the line. USU ultimately fell short in that contest 33-24. The result only magnified concerns that Utah State’s schedule failed to prepare them for a matchup with the Broncos. Of USU’s 11 games before Boise, only three managed to finish the 2018 campaign with a winning record, and Hawaii’s 8-6 mark was the best of that bunch. While nothing definitive can be said about whether USU’s lackluster schedule affected the team’s preparation for Boise State, the narrative certainly existed.
Enter 2019, and the script has flipped several times over. The Aggies enter another showdown with Boise State with major ramifications for the MW title chase, much like last season. The similarities end there, however. The Aggies, with Love piloting an almost entirely new offensive group, have staggered to a 6-4 mark. A once high-octane offense has at times bared more resemblance to the engine of a late ’80s Ford Escort. The Aggie defense has largely managed to replicate their opportunistic style from a season ago, but has bled yardage elsewhere and is slowly succumbing to injuries throughout the unit as the season progresses. In short, Utah State is far from the team that ventured into Boise last season.
But the Aggies have been sorely tested this time around. Of USU’s first 10 opponents on the year, seven currently hold winning records, with Utah State managing a pedestrian 3-4 record in those contests. To repeat, USU’s prior schedule might have zero effect on the result of Saturday’s face-off, but the fact the Aggies have managed a victory over one of the MW’s other elites (San Diego State, on the road no less) bodes well for Utah State.
But, like Frost, what exists past where the path bends into the undergrowth is a mystery, and plenty exists for Saturday. Love exited USU’s win versus Wyoming with an undisclosed injury and until Love trots out onto the field, his availability is in question. The same situation exists for the Broncos with QB Hank Bachmeier. The freshman has been absent the past two weeks and Boise State’s offense has looked vulnerable as a result. The Broncos’ sack artist and all-time MW sacks leader Curtis Weaver may also be forced to sit with an injury suffered last week versus New Mexico. The game’s result could very well be decided by a matter of availability for both Aggies and Broncos.
As the majority of Utah State fans realize, the Broncos have enough talent elsewhere to compensate for injuries. Freshman RB George Holani figures to be a menace to the entire MW for several seasons, and has already amassed over 800 yards from scrimmage in 2019. Safety Kekaula Kaniho is more than capable of a game-changing play either in the secondary or at the line of scrimmage. And Boise State’s leading trio of receivers John Hightower, Khalil Shakur and CT Thomas pose a serious threat to an Aggie secondary that ranks 97th in the country in passing yards allowed per game.
Utah State’s best hopes of victory reside in the trenches. If Weaver is absent from Boise’s front seven, it will give the Aggie offensive line a fortuitous opportunity to control the line of scrimmage on offense. As the cliche goes, the best defense is a good offense. A comfortable pocket for Love plus running lanes for the running back duo of senior Gerold Bright and junior Jaylen Warren could give USU an edge in the time of possession battle and keep the Bronco offense off the field and out of the end zone.
Turn the tables and a Utah State front seven still featuring talent like senior DE Tipa Galeai and junior DE Nick Heninger could pose serious problems for a surprisingly porous Boise State offensive line. The Broncos returned all five starters up front, but have still allowed 2.3 sacks per game. While Holani has staked an early claim as one of the MW’s best running backs, the Broncos have only managed 4.4 yards per carry this season due in large part to the line’s struggles. In each of USU’s four losses this season, the Aggies have failed to hold the opponent to 160 yards rushing or fewer. For Utah State to pull an upset, USU’s front seven will need to prove its muscle in the trenches.
The only thing teams can wish for is a chance. Utah State would likely still need an Air Force loss to claim a spot in the MW title game, but any scenario involves an Aggie victory versus Boise State. The path USU has taken to reach this point has been nothing like the path of 2018. Saturday will show if that has made all the difference.