Winless Mountain West teams get together in Logan on Thanksgiving night
It's been a rough season in many ways for Utah State (0-4), which is under the direction of interim head coach Frank Maile after Gary Andersen was fired following the Aggies' 0-3 start. Maile also is breaking in a couple of new quarterbacks after Utah transfer Jason Shelley was dismissed for an unspecified violation of team rules.
And he's attempting to do all of this while dealing with complications and interruptions caused by COVID-19, including the cancellation of last week's game at Wyoming.
"As of today, we're playing ball," Maile told reporters Monday. "We had to quarantine players — probably too many to play (in Week 11). And thinking of our players' health and safety first and foremost, that would've been a problem for us to play last week."
The last time the Aggies played was on Nov. 14 at home against Fresno State. A 35-16 loss to the Bulldogs dropped Utah State to an 0-4 start for the first time since 2010.
Similarly, New Mexico also is 0-4 and has been impacted in a significant way by the coronavirus. The Lobos have basically been relegated to nomads this season as COVID-19 restrictions in Albuquerque have forced them to relocate their entire operation.
The team is currently living in Henderson, just outside of Las Vegas, and paying for it to the tune of $70,000 a week for their hotel bill, according to reports. Their only "home" game thus far came two weeks ago against Nevada and was played in UNLV's Sam Boyd Stadium.
So this will another road game for New Mexico, which fell to 0-4 last week after getting shut out 28-0 by Air Force in Colorado Springs. It was a step back for the Lobos, who had lost their previous two games by a combined 13 points.
"We have to get our pride back — I think it was taken," first-year Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales told reporters. "That was a terrible performance by everyone involved both coaching and playing. I don't think we did a good enough job of coaching them to make them successful."
It was so bad even sophomore kicker George Steinkamp, a bright spot leading up to last week's loss, wasn't able to do his job. After connecting on six of his first seven field goal attempts, Steinkamp went 0-for-4 against Air Force, missing from 37, 40, 50, and 51 yards last Saturday.
The head-to-head series between these Mountain West rivals is tied 13-13, with Utah State winning the last three meetings to draw even.
New Mexico at Utah State
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: New Mexico -5.5
When New Mexico Has the Ball
Similar to Utah State, the Lobos also are trying to figure out their quarterback situation. Tevaka Tuioti has missed the last two games because of a concussion, and he's no guarantee to be cleared to play on Thursday.
"I have no idea," head coach Danny Gonzales told reporters Monday when asked about his quarterback's status in concussion protocol.
If Tuioti sits again, sophomore Trae Hall would make his third straight start. He'll try to bounce back after a rough outing against Air Force in which he completed 23 of 42 pass attempts for 221 yards with an interception. For the season, Hall is completing 52.5 percent of his passes for 475 yards with no touchdowns and three picks.
Prior to suffering the concussion, Tuioti was completing 56.1 percent of his passes for 475 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, so if he's able to return, it could give this offense a much-needed boost.
Last week, New Mexico finished with 304 total yards against Air Force, including only 83 rushing on 25 carries, while going just 4-for-13 on third down. Bobby Cole, who leads the team with 255 rushing yards, and Nathaniel Jones combined for 58 yards on 12 attempts against the Falcons.
Even though his numbers against Air Force weren't that impressive, Hall did manage to connect with eight different players with Jordan Kress and Andrew Erickson each hauling in for catches. Emmanuel Logan-Greene had the most yards (64) and is leading the team in receptions (21) for the season while Kress is tops with 224 yards. Erickson is right behind both of them with 195 yards on 11 catches.
Utah State's defense has struggled mightily this season. The Aggies are last or second to last in three of the four major categories and are giving up 37.3 points (113th nationally) and 525.8 (124th) yards per game.
When Utah State Has the Ball
Shelley, who was the Aggies' starter to begin the season, has been dismissed from the team, so who it's going to be, coach? Sophomore Andrew Peasley was supposed to be the starter last week until he was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols.
But the next man up — redshirt freshman Cooper Legas — didn't get his shot either as the Aggies' game at Wyoming was canceled due to virus concerns. So where does that leave things?
"I still think it's up for competition," interim head coach Frank Maile told reporters Monday of the QB situation. "I know Andrew has more experience, but I think it's always a competition outside when it comes to the quarterback position. I think Peasley has the upper hand because he knows the offense a little bit better (and) has more experience, but that doesn't speak to what the competition will look like from day-to-day."
Whoever steps up to the controls won't have offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder in his ear, as the assistant coach will miss his second straight game due to quarantine protocols.
With limited or no experience at quarterback and running backs coach Dave Schramm directing the offense, don't expect Utah State to stray far from its usual run-heavy attack. And that's not a bad thing against the Lobos, which allowed 356 rushing yards as part of the 422 total last week against Air Force. The New Mexico defense — led by senior linebacker Brandon Shook's 37 tackles, 21 of them solo — isn't getting to the quarterback much either. As a unit, they have just four sacks in four games.
So there's hope that Utah State — no matter the QB — can deliver some much-needed offense. Much of it is likely to come from senior running back Jaylen Warren, who posted a season-high 136 yards and a touchdown against Fresno State. His big play was a career-long 86-yard touchdown run on the Aggies' first play from scrimmage.
That has been one of the few highlights for an offense that's last in the Mountain West and second to last in the FBS (out of 127 teams that have played at least one game) in both points (11.3) and yards (242.8) per game.
More big plays from wide receiver/kick return specialist Savon Scarver would certainly help too. The senior returned his sixth kick for a touchdown, this one covering 94 yards, in Utah State's loss to Fresno State two weeks ago.
Assuming this game is a go, both the Lobos and Aggies will be thankful to just be playing on Thanksgiving. And one of these teams will have an even better Turkey Day when it's over because someone has to win this game.
Last year, it was Utah State claiming a 38-25 victory in Albuquerque in the teams' regular-season finale. That made it three straight wins and six of the last nine for the Aggies, as the overall series is now tied at 13 wins apiece.
But a fourth in a row seems to be asking a lot for a team that is undergoing a ton of change lately, remains unsettled at quarterback, and has been hit hard by COVID-19 in recent weeks.
Despite the record, New Mexico — except for last week's throwaway in Colorado — has been showing signs of improvement under first-year head coach Danny Gonzales. To put it another way, the Lobos have looked the better of these 0-4 teams so far. And they're due for a win.
Prediction: New Mexico 30, Utah State 20
(Top photo by Wade Denniston/USU Athletics, courtesy of utahstateaggies.com)