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Wake Forest vs Utah State Preview

The first game of the 2019-2020 season will be a tough one

NCAA Football: Utah State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Football is right around the corner and that means it is time to preview opponents for the 2019 season! The first game up is the home opener on August 30th against the Utah State Aggies, a team that was very good last season. I’ll start by just throwing out some stats for the Aggies from last season and some projections for this season, and then I’ll try to break down the matchup a little more in depth. For a more detailed look at USU, check out Bill Connelly’s 2019 preview.

Game Date: August 30th

Opponent: Utah State

Conference: MWC

Head Coach: Gary Andersen (52-54)

2018-19 record: 11-2 (7-1)

Highest Ranking: 14th (AP)

Bowl Game: New Mexico Bowl (Beat North Texas 52-13)

Wins: New Mexico State, Tenn Tech, Air Force, BYU, UNLV, Wyoming, New Mexico, Hawaii, San Jose State, Colorado State, North Texas

Losses: Michigan State, Boise State

Yards per Game: 497.4 (11th in NCAA)

Yards Allowed per Game: 379.5 (51 in NCAA)

Points per Game: 45.4 (2nd in NCAA)

Points Allowed per Game: 23.1 (34th in NCAA)

S&P+ Rankings (2018-19 season):

  • Overall: 21
  • Offense: 22
  • Defense: 35
  • Special Teams: 55
  • SOS: 110

Projected S&P+ Rankings (2019-2020 season):

  • Overall: 42
  • Offense: 47
  • Defense: 44

Key Departures:

  • Head Coach Matt Wells (Hired at Texas Tech)
  • Darwin Thompson, RB (153 rush, 1044 yards, 14 TD)
  • Ron’Quavion Tarver, WR (66 rec, 709 yards, 8 TD)
  • Jalen Greene, WR (44 rec, 689 yards, 6 TD)
  • Aaren Vaughns, WR (33 rec, 581 yards, 5 TD)
  • Chase Christiansen, LB (99 tackles, 5 TFL)

Notable Returns:

  • Jordan Love, QB (267-417, 3567 yards, 32 TD, 6 Int)
  • Gerold Bright, RB (141 rush, 888 yards, 10 TD)
  • David Woodward, LB (134 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 Int)
  • Tipa Galeai, DE (64 tackles, 10 sacks)
  • DJ Williams, CB (42 tackles, 11 PD, 4 Int)

If you were paying attention during that information dump above, you probably noticed that Utah State was a very, very good team last season. Their only 2 losses on the year were a 7 point loss at Michigan State and a 9 point loss at Boise State. They had such a good season that their coach got hired away to a Power 5 job and arguably their best player, Darwin Thompson, decided to forego his final year of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft (he was drafted by the Chiefs in the 6th round). That, of course, means that the Aggies will look completely different this year when the Deacs play them.

Gary Andersen, the new (and old) coach at Utah State, started his coaching career with the Aggies in 2009. He finished his first stint at USU with a 26-24 record over 4 years and won the Famous Idaho Bowl in 2012 before being hired by Wisconsin. After 2 seasons and a 19-7 record with the Badgers, Anderson left for Oregon State, in part due to Wisconsin’s academic standards. He won just 7 games in 3 years with the Beavers and resigned in 2017, leaving all of his $12mil buyout on the table.

I’m definitely not an expert on what Andersen’s coaching philosophy is, but from what I can deduce by looking at the stats, he loves to run the football. In 2011, the Aggies ran the ball almost 50 times per game; in his 2 seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers ran the ball 43 and 46 times per game respectively. In his final full year at Oregon State, the Beavers were 51st in the nation in adjusted run rate and 115th in adjusted pace according to S&P+. Obviously, it has been a couple of years since Andersen coached his last game, so his coaching style could have evolved or changed in that time. Based on his career, however, it looks like Andersen wants to use a slower tempo, ball control offense to keep the play count in the 60-70 range. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what the Deacs want to do when they have ball.

On the roster side of things, the Aggies lost a ton of production off last year’s team (from my calculations, almost 4,000 of their 6,482 yards). From their offense that was 2nd in the nation in points per game a season ago, they return just 2 starters, according to Mountain West Wire. Fortunately for USU, one of those starters is a very good quarterback in Jordan Love, who was 8th in the country last year in TD passes with 32 and 10th in QB rating. They also return a solid runner in Gerold Bright, who was 34th in the nation with 6.3 yards per rush and finished last season with 1120 total yards and 13 TDs as the backup running back. Outside of the those 2 guys, the Aggies will be young and inexperienced everywhere else on the field. The receiving corps returns just 1 player who caught more than 20 passes a season ago, and the offensive line has the difficult task of replacing 6 seniors (including 2 all conference offensive lineman) in the trenches. An inexperienced offensive line in the first game of the season is definitely a matchup that should favor the Deacs.

On the defensive side, the Aggies should be just as good, if not better, than they were last year. They return a couple of key players in David Woodward, a 2018 Pro Football Focus 1st Team All American at linebacker, and Tipa Galeai, who finished last season with 10 sacks. They are also getting back a lot of experience at the corner back position on a defense that was ranked 9th on passing downs by S&P+ last season. DJ Williams is the player in the secondary the Wake QBs will need to be aware of; he finished last season with 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended. The biggest challenge for the USU defense going into the season will be replacing the loss of both starting safeties, who combined for 124 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 7 passes defended in 2018. The Deacs could try to exploit that loss early by going deep in the passing game.

In my opinion, Utah State will not be the 11-2 juggernaut that they were last year, but they will still be a very tough team to beat. They have one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, but they have a lot of question marks around him that will likely lead to a dip in offensive production. That being said, the Deacs definitely have their work cut out for them come opening night, and I will be pleasantly surprised if Wake Forest comes away with another 36 point blow out win over the Aggies.