The Washington State Cougars begin their 2021 season at Gesa Field inside Martin Stadium against the Utah Aggies on Saturday night (8 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). Utah State was among the worst teams in the Mountain West and all of college football last season, but that brought change.
New head coach Blake Anderson comes to Utah State after a successful stint with Arkansas State where he won two conference championships, went to six bowl games, and logged a 51-37 record.
When the Aggies have the ball...
Much of Anderson’s success at Arkansas State was built on the offensive side of the ball through a typically balanced attack that leaned more toward the pass in his final season with the Red Wolves. Anderson will have a tall task improving on one of the worst offenses in the country in 2020.
Logan Bonner is the likely starting quarterback for Utah State, a transfer from Arkansas State who followed his coach to Logan. He split time with Layne Hatcher last season throwing for almost 200 fewer yards in 68 more attempts. Hatcher averaged 10.6 YPA against Bonner’s 7.1 YPA. Bonner’s numbers aren’t bad, but when you put them in the context of another quarterback who faced the same schedule and the same defenses, they look worse.
However, Bonner is a good candidate to improve an Aggie passing offense that struggled last season—Utah State quarterbacks combined to complete just 52% of their passes for six touchdowns against five interceptions. It certainly looks like Bonner can be better than that, as he completed nearly 60% of his passes for 18 touchdowns and six picks last season with Arkansas State.
He’ll be throwing to an experienced receiving corps led by senior outside receiver Deven Thompkins, who caught a team-high 20 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown last season. Justin McGriff is also expected to make an impact, he caught 15 balls for 185 yards and two scores as sophomore. Tight end Carson Terrell returns for his super senior season after logging four catches and a touchdown in four games last year. Brandon Bowling is also likely to see action, as he comes over from Arkansas State after an honorable mention all-Sun Belt season in 2020.
The most notable receiver isn’t necessarily notable for his catches. Savon Scarver will line up on the inside offensively, but he’s most dangerous on kickoff returns. Scarver is one of the best returners in the country, taking six kickoffs back for a touchdown in his career. He’ll test the early-season readiness of WSU’s kickoff coverage.
In the backfield, WSU will see a player who is very accustomed to losing to the Cougs—Oregon State transfer Calvin Tyler, Jr. Tyler played sparingly for the Beavers, carrying the ball 15 times for 45 yards in 2020. He’ll have some big shoes to fill after the departure of Jaylen Warren, who logged 252 yards and three touchdowns in three games last season, to Oklahoma State.
Backing up Tyler will be sophomore John Gentry and Elelyon Noa. Gentry saw just seven carries as a freshman, while Noa logged just 81 yards on his 31 attempts.
It also must be mentioned that Utah State has added Tacoma native Quazzel White as a transfer from TCU, and he is likely to start at right guard.
WSU fans know as well as anybody that a great offensive coach can’t turn around a bad offense immediately. However, the Aggies do have more talent at quarterback than they did a season ago, and feature a very experienced offensive squad.
The Coug defense is in a similar situation—Jake Dickert’s side is highly experienced but lacking in previous success, with a couple newcomers that could make an impact. This could be a bit of a soft landing for the start of Dickert’s first full year as defensive coordinator, but the Aggies appear to be more formidable offensively than they would have been a year ago.
Expect Utah State to move the ball at times, and struggle mightily in others as they acquaint themselves to a new offense—but they may be ahead of the curve with Bonner’s experience.
When the Cougs have the ball...
The Aggies struggled defensively last season, particularly on the ground, where they allowed more than six yards per non-sack rushing attempt. This year, there are two notable additions to from the University of Miami. Defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda served as co-defensive coordinator for the Hurricanes the past two years and is noted for his recruiting ability. He brought with him defensive end Patrick Joyner, Jr, a former 4-star recruit who saw limited action in Miami.
Miami has featured some solid defenses recently, and Banda played some role in that. Much like Anderson’s task on the offensive side of the ball, he’ll have a lot of room to improve.
The defensive line is likely to be Utah State’s strength. Opposite Joyner at defensive end will be Nick Heninger, who logged 3.0 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss last season, both team highs. He’ll rotate with Bryon Vaughns, a transfer from Texas who did not play in 2020 but logged 14 tackles in 2020 as a linebacker.
Utah State returns its starting defensive tackles, Marcus Moore and Hale Motu’apuaka. Backing up them will be Michigan transfer Philip Paea, a former four-star prospect.
At the next level, the Aggies feature super senior transfer Justin Rice, another player following Anderson from Arkansas State. Rice was an all-conference player with the Red Wolves, and before that was all-Mountain West with Fresno State. He gets in the backfield, logging 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks last year.
AJ Vongphachanh returns as a starter in the middle after leading the team in tackles as a freshman. Cash Gilliam will man the other outside linebacker position, likely in a role that frequently looks to bring pressure.
On the back end, Shaq Bond returns as an Honorable Mention all-conference player at safety. He is flanked in the depth chart by junior Dominic Tatum, who amassed 13 tackles and two pass break-ups in six games as a sophomore. Behind them, we again see another Michigan transfer in Hunter Reynolds, and Troy transfer Monte’ McGary.
At corner, there is yet another Power 5 transfer, Kyle Mayberry, who comes from Kansas. He’s currently buried on the depth chart behind returning starters Zahodri Jackson and Cam Lampkin.
There’s a lot of new, upper classmen talent infused in the Utah State roster. That, combined with a new coach, means there is a strong possibilty that the Aggies improve defensively in 2021. That’s not hard to do, as they were very bad last season, but it’s easier to turn around a defense quickly than an offense—especially when a staff can add athleticism.
Washington State has lost some receiver talent, and the quarterback situation is up in the air, so it will be interesting to see how the Cougs attack the Aggie defense that will likely be geared towards gambling for negative plays and turnovers.
Utah State isn’t necessarily going to be a tough defense, but the Aggies are going to be more talented than they were a year ago. Still, the Cougs should be able to move the ball at the very least on the ground with its talented group of running backs led by Max Borghi.
The Bottom Line
Utah State was very bad last year. Washington State was middle-of-the-road. Based on that, it would be easy to anticipate a dominant Cougs win at home. Bill Connelly’s SP+ predicts just that—a 42-21 Wazzu victory on average.
That’s could very well happen, but it’s hard to get a read on Utah State because there has been so much change in the program. The Aggies feature a new coaching staff and many new players at important positions. They could come out on fire or they could come out flat trying to figure out new systems with some unfamiliar faces. They could get a game-changing kick return from Scarver.
Overall, though, the Cougs are the better team on paper. If they can avoid their own early-season hiccups, they should walk off Gesa Field just before midnight with a comfortable win.