Aggies face tough test in Homecoming match with Bulldogs

Utah State quarterback Jason Shelley (15) throws the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/Pool Photo via AP)

LOGAN – Last year’s Utah State at Fresno State football game produced one of the Aggies’ most memorable moments of 2019 — and their first walk-off win by field goal in more than 20 years — as Dominik Eberle drilled a 30-yard field goal as time expired to lift USU to a 37-35 victory.

Off to their worst start (0-3) since 2008, the Aggies hope this year’s edition in Logan will be just as exciting. However, righting the ship won’t be easy. Saturday’s Homecoming game will feature an interim coach and an empty stadium, as Gary Andersen was relieved of his head coaching duties Saturday afternoon and USU announced Tuesday morning that this game would be played without fans in attendance. 

Co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile takes over for Andersen and it’s the second time he will serve as the Aggies’ interim coach after filling in during the 2018 New Mexico Bowl when former head coach Matt Wells accepted the head coaching job at Texas Tech. The Aggies defeated North Texas in that game, 52-13.

“The biggest thing for us, is this is not about coaches, it’s not about one person. It’s about the kids,” Maile said on Monday. “I talked to the staff (Sunday), these next five weeks we owe to these kids. Everything that we know, everything that we are — mind, body and soul —we have to give to these kids.” 

Regardless of who’s leading the Aggies, they will have their hands full trying to contain Ronnie Rivers and a Fresno State offense averaging more than 32 points and 442 yards per game. Following a season-opening loss to Hawaii, the Bulldogs (2-1) have picked up convincing wins over Colorado State and UNLV.

Rivers is the engine for Fresno State as he is the leading rusher averaging 102.3 yards per game on the ground, while adding an additional 58.6 receiving yards per game. He’s the bulldogs second-leading receiver behind Keric Wheatfall (13 catches, 225 yards) and has already tallied eight touchdowns on the season — twice as many as the entire USU offense.

Keeping up with the Bulldogs will be a challenge for Jason Shelley and the Aggies. Shelley has yet to throw for more than 100 yards in a game this season and USU ranks nearly dead last (122 out of 123 FBS teams) in scoring offense, averaging a paltry 9.7 points per game.

“It’s always been about two things for me football-wise, and it’s effort and execution. Effort has never been the problem with our team. Right now, it’s really execution of our game plan,” Maile said. “We have talented kids, we have good players. They’ll play hard for us, they’ll play fast, they’ll play physical — we’ve got to put them in better situations to be able to execute that game plan.”

One area the Aggies could find success against the Bulldogs is on the ground. Fresno State is giving up 238 rushing yards per game, the 12th worst in the nation, and USU has shown the ability to move the ball on the ground — albeit in flashes. In their three games so far, the Aggies have had three different leading rushers, with Jaylen Warren leading the backfield in Week 1, Devonta’e Henry-Cole in Week 2 when Warren was banged up, and Shelley leading it in Week 3.

Not only will a strong rushing effort help the Aggies attack Fresno State’s defensive weakness, but it will also help keep USU’s bottom-10 defense off the field. The Aggies currently rank No. 117 in the nation in both total yards allowed (520.7) and time of possession (25 minutes per game). USU’s best chance of slowing down 37th ranked offense and 25th ranked passing attack may be to simply keep the Bulldogs off the field.

Other stats to know:

Fresno State’s offense is led by junior QB Jake Haener who has completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 764 yards and 5 touchdowns to go along with 3 interceptions. Haener is also the Bulldogs second leading rusher on the season with 79 yards and another score. 

The Bulldogs have been one of the better teams in the nation on third down this year, converting at a 45.2 percent rate. Conversely, the Aggies are one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to third downs, converting at just a 33.3 percent rate.

Utah State is 13-17-1 all-time against Fresno State, but the Aggies have won three in a row. The Bulldogs last win in the series came in the inaugural Mountain West Championship game in 2013 when the No. 25 Bulldogs, led by current Las Vegas Raiders starting QB Derek Carr, beat the Aggies 24-17.

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