NCAA Football Preview - Utah State Aggies

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Updated: 8/20 12:59 pm

After Andersen departed for Wisconsin, Utah State elevated Matt Wells from defensive coordinator to take control and right off the bat the team hit a sour note.

Against in-state rival Utah, a team with which Wells held a coaching position from 2004-08, the Aggies were turned away in a 30-26 decision on the road. The action turned more favorable for USU after that as it rattled off three wins in the next four outings, with the lone setback being a narrow 17-14 loss to USC on the road.

Unfortunately, the Aggies were again stung by a familiar opponent from the Beehive State when they absorbed a 31-14 home defeat versus BYU at the start of October. The setback dropped the team to an even 3-3 on the campaign and put postseason prospects in jeopardy. It also didn't help that Utah State then bowed to Mountain West Conference superpower Boise State at home the following week.

However, USU played the Broncos tough, losing by just 11 points, and perhaps that was the kick in the pants coach Wells and his crew needed in order to run off five consecutive conference wins and a first-place finish in the Mountain Division of the MWC with a record of 7-1.

For the first time in league history, with 12 member programs the MWC was able to establish a conference title game between the two division winners, in this case Utah State and Fresno State. The Bulldogs were nationally ranked in early December and had been considered a potential BCS buster, but still the Aggies played FSU tough and lost by only a touchdown, 24-17.

With the defeat, the Aggies were 8-5 overall and as a result accepted a bid to take on 23rd-ranked Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. Against one of the top offensive squads in the country, the Aggies put their outstanding defense on display and came away with a 21-14 victory.

While the Aggies appeared to have taken a step back last season, it must be noted that starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton, an all-conference standout, had his campaign cut short when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the loss to BYU. Prior to being put on the shelf, Keeton had completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

"Very unfortunate situation for both Chuckie and our team," said coach Wells at the time. "We've lost a great leader, great teammate and a very productive football player. I have all the confidence in the world in Chuckie, along with our doctors and staff that he will come back stronger than ever next season."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Stepping in for Keeton at quarterback last season was Darell Garretson who had his moments, tossing 10 TDs and completing 60.3 percent of his attempts, but still he was a far cry from the player who was named the preseason MWC Offensive Player of the Year.

Named to the 2014 watch lists for the Davey O'Brien, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards, Keeton did not take part in spring drills as he continued to rehab his damaged knee, but should be ready to take his rightful spot under center when the season kicks off at Tennessee at the end of August. Touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate as well, Keeton is second on USU's all-time lists for passing touchdowns (56) and completions (517), and it also doesn't hurt that he can be an elusive runner when the situation calls for it.

Between Keeton and Garretson, as well as Craig Harrison who accounted for 434 yards and two TDs in nine appearances, the Aggies were a perfect example of how to spread the wealth in 2013. Three players caught at least 50 passes and there were a total of 12 who made it into the end zone after catching a pass. JoJo Natson is the top returning receiver with his 59 catches, although all that action turned into only 395 yards and two scores. Making more out of less was Brandon Swindall with his 29 receptions leading to a team-best six TDs.

The Aggies had the luxury of watching one of the more punishing runners in the MWC in Joey DeMartino deliver 1,221 yards and 13 TDs, but he has since left, as has Robert Marshall (415 yards), which leaves Joe Hill as the top returning ball carrier who posted a mere 252 yards and a score in only five games. However, like Keeton, Hill is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss the final nine games of 2013.

Luckily, it sounds as though coach Wells is planning on having both Keeton and Hill ready to go when the season opens.

"Chuckie Keeton and Joe Hill, their knee injuries are right on schedule and they've been cleared by doctors to go full. Everyone of you is just like me and ready to see those guys run around and be the same Chuckie Keeton and Joe Hill that we know and love."

DEFENSE: While Keeton's return to action elevates the offense for sure, it is the defense that has been claiming the majority of the headlines the last few seasons for the Aggies. A year ago, the unit ranked first in the MWC and seventh nationally with just 17.1 ppg allowed, and yet that was still a step down from the effort in 2012 when the squad permitted only 15.4 ppg.

The defense has just five returning starters, but one of them is linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who is one of the best players at his position in the MWC. Fackrell was named All-MWC Second Team in 2013 when he led the program with 13.0 tackles for loss and was second with five sacks. One of four players with two forced fumbles to their credit, Fackrell also showed his athleticism by returning an interception against Hawaii 99 yards for a touchdown in early November. Fackrell has been named to the watch lists for the 2014 Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Butkus and Lombardi Awards.

Another key performer for the Aggies on this side of the ball will be defensive end B.J. Larsen, a Second-Team All-MWC honoree a year ago when he turned just 31 total stops into eight TFL and four sacks.

Joined by brother Nick at linebacker, Zach Vigil is the top returning tackler for the program with 124 stops, marking the second straight season in which he amassed triple digits. While his sack total dropped from 5.5 in 2012 to just 2.0 a year ago, Zach Vigil did raise his TFL total by three to 12.5.

Also worthy of note is defensive back Brian Suite, the top ball hawk for the Aggies who registered five interceptions a year ago. A speedy cover man, Suite should earn consideration for the Jim Thorpe Award.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A key contributor to the scoreboard last season, placekicker Nick Diaz may not be needed as much this time around if Keeton is back to full strength, but it is nice to know that the California product can come on in tough situations to provide positive results.

After hitting 10-of-13 field goal attempts in 2012, Diaz elevated his effort to hit 17-of-23, knocking through 4-of-6 between 40-49 yards, last year. When Diaz is hitting his mark, that means punter Jaron Bentrude will have less of a role for the Aggies. While he managed to land 31 of his 73 punts inside the 20-yard line, he still averaged just 39.8 yards overall to rank ninth in the conference and 80th nationally.

Listed as a wide receiver, Natson not only played a part as a running back last season, leading to 98 yards and three touchdowns, he also earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors as a punt returner as he ranked fourth in the league and 22nd in the country with an average of 11.3 yards. By virtue of his versatility, you can expect to see Natson again doing anything and everything needed to keep this team competitive.

OUTLOOK: The Aggies have been picked to finish second in the Mountain Division this season behind Boise State, but that's assuming the Broncos can get themselves together after a change in head coach. Utah State actually closes out the regular season against BSU on the road in late November, a meeting which could easily settle a number of postseason scenarios.

Outside of road trips to Tennessee and BYU, the schedule appears to be quite favorable for the Aggies, although playing back-to-back road games against Hawaii and Wyoming in a span of six days in November doesn't sound like the perfect plan. Then again, neither one of those programs is supposed to be much of a threat, so being caught off guard should not be an issue.

Expect to see statement games at home against the likes of Air Force, New Mexico and San Jose State, with Keeton running wild and the USU defense punishing the visitors.

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