Published November 20, 2014
Gary Andersen is a great motivator, having rebuilt Utah State's program into one that is bowl-eligible for the second straight season.
On Saturday, the Aggies defense faces its biggest challenge — slowing down a high-powered Louisiana Tech team that has scored at least 50 points in eight of its last 10 games.
"It's a well-oiled machine," Andersen said of the 19th-ranked Bulldogs and their top-rated offense.
On the line in Ruston, La., will likely be the Western Athletic Conference title as Utah State (8-2) and Louisiana Tech (9-1) are both 4-0 in league play.
There are plenty of other numbers to digest, starting with Utah State's 12th-rated defense. It is ranked in the top 20 nationally in five different categories, including fifth against the run (94.6 yards) and sixth in points allowed per game (13.5).
"They are just not giving up many points and yards," Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes said. "They have just been a dominant team defensively. That has allowed them to pull away early in ball games."
Utah State has outscored its opponents 103-6 in the first quarter. The Aggies and Penn State are the only teams that have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown this season.
The Aggies also have won their last four by an average margin of 29.5 points en route to their best start since 1974. Their two losses are by five points combined, 16-14 at Wisconsin and 6-3 at Brigham Young. And one of their biggest wins was over Andersen's alma mater, Utah, which his Aggies shocked 27-20 in overtime in Week 2.
None of those opponents had the potency of Louisiana Tech. None had a quarterback with stats like Colby Cameron, who on Saturday against Texas State broke the NCAA record for most consecutive career pass attempts without an interception. His streak is still alive at 419.
Utah State counters with a stingy red-zone defense, allowing opponents to come away with just 10 touchdowns in 29 trips. Senior cornerback Will Davis is one playmaker, with interceptions in each of the last three games. Two weeks ago, he helped limit Texas State to 158 yards of total offense in a 38-7 win.
Give credit, too, to young linebackers Zach Vigil (nine tackles for loss, five sacks, a forced fumble and blocked kick) and Kyler Fackrell (two interceptions, seven QB hurries).
"They have a lot of leadership on the team. They do things the right way," Dykes said of a defense allowing its fewest points since 1963. "They are in great position defensively play after play ... never out of place."
Utah State has dominated despite losing its best defensive player from last year, Bobby Wagner, who became the highest-drafted Aggie (No. 47 by Seattle) since Rulon Jones went 42nd overall to the Denver Broncos in 1980.
It helped that Andersen brought on Dave Aranda to serve as defensive coordinator this year.
What doesn't help is hearing Dykes say Louisiana Tech hasn't played a complete game yet.
Both coaches predict a tough, hard-fought contest Saturday. There's no question is will be fast-paced, with the Aggies expected to have their hands full just trying to rotate in defensive players.
"I would like it if they would come out and they would get into a huddle, which they never do, and sit there and snap the ball with one second on the clock," said Andersen. "Obviously, that's a dream world and that's not going to happen."
Instead, Andersen said, it will be "pedal to the metal" for a quick-strike Louisiana Tech team that has 20 touchdown drives this season that have taken 60 seconds or less.
"If you watch the film, you can absolutely see when Louisiana Tech feels that they've got your tired ... and comes after you," Andersen said. "With fatigue, you have got to be tougher-minded. We cannot let fatigue be a factor to us."
What figures to be a factor is that the Bulldogs have a balanced attack with running back Kenneth Dixon now holding NCAA freshman records for most rushing TDs (24), total TDs (25) and points scored (150). The records were previously held by Marshall Faulk.
"Probably the biggest difference from years past is quite simply, they can run the ball effectively and they have shown they can do that game after game after game," Andersen said. "It was much more one-dimensional the first two years we played them. It's a tremendous challenge for us."
One plus for the Aggies: they have had extra time to prepare since they are coming off a bye.
"It's fun to be in a game that has this much (riding) on the outcome, this late in the year," Andersen said. "Late November games are what football teams play for and fans want to be around."