When the Utah State Aggies face the Washington State Cougars in Pullman on Saturday night, they will find out what many teams already know. Playing the Cougars in Martin Stadium is a daunting task for any visiting team.
That's even more true when every seat is filled and fans are roaring with approval for their Cougars, which will be the case for the season opener when Martin Stadium returns to full spectator capacity for the first time in two years.
"We're ready to go," Cougars wide receiver Travell Harris told reporters. "We're ready to showcase what we've been working on, and we're ready to get out there and get it done."
With fewer COVID-19 restrictions, the teams line up to begin their respective hopeful rises from what amounted to ugly shortened campaigns a year ago.
Utah State went just 1-5 in its Mountain West-only schedule last fall, resulting in a coaching change. Blake Anderson takes over the Aggies after seven years at Arkansas State where he went 51-37 with two Sun Belt titles (2015, '16). He inherits a batch of returning starters but also has brought a few of his former players with him as he seeks to make Utah State a conference contender once again.
Washington State also is looking for better results after going 1-3 in head coach Nick Rolovich's debut season that was significantly impacted by the pandemic. Fifteen starters return from last season's team, and the hope is that the experience gained from that and a more typical offseason cycle will help everyone get on the same page.
For both teams, Saturday night presents an opportunity to get 2021 started off on the right foot.
Utah State at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 11 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State -17
When Utah State Has the Ball
Just pass the ball. Washington State was among the worst in the country last season defending the pass. Even in a small sample size of four games, giving up 307 yards per game just through the air stands out. So it stands to reason that Anderson and offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker will focus on getting the ball to their stable of pass-catchers.
There are tall targets like wide receiver Justin McGriff (6-6) and tight end Carson Terrell (6-5), as well as fleet-a-foot hands-men in Jordan Nathan and Savon Scarver over the top. It'll be up to junior quarterbacks Logan Bonner, who followed Anderson from Arkansas State, and Andrew Peasley to get them the ball.
"(Peasley) can use his legs really well," wide receiver Deven Thompkins told cachevalleydaily.com. "He's fast. He can get down the field and make those big plays with his legs, and he still has a great ball. Logan? He is more of a pocket passer. He's accurate with his pocket passing."
When Washington State Has the Ball
This isn't your older brother's Wazzu crew. It's just not expected to be the usual pass-happy bunch found in recent years at Martin Stadium, so don't expect whoever starts at quarterback — incumbent Jayden de Laura or graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano to make like Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew, or Anthony Gordon and put up video-game passing stats.
Instead, the Cougars are primed to go on the attack with Max Borghi — one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 — and fellow senior running back Deon McIntosh. And why not when you've got the likes of All-Pac 12 first-team offensive tackle Abraham Lucas to help open holes?
Borghi weaved his way to 817 yards along the ground in 2019, while McIntosh had a solid 323 rushing yards in just four games last fall. Borghi also is a major threat out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 86 catches for 597 yards and five scores two seasons ago.
"He can play — there's no doubt," Anderson told reporters. "He's a physical runner. He missed some time (last year), but we expect him to come with his very best."
Cougars fans expect it, as well.
It's been 60 years since Utah State and Washington State have squared off on the football field. So let's throw that and the 2-1 Wazzu series edge out the window and focus on 2021.
This game will be decided by whether the Cougars' pass defense, which struggled mightily last season, can contain the Aggies' receivers. It says here it will be a challenge, but that unit will do enough.
The biggest reason why the Cougars will get it done is that they'll be energized by the 32,952 fans on hand — something they've long awaited to see again.
And that will mean a happy day for Nick Rolovich during troubled times for Washington State's head coach. He's faced criticism regarding his response to a state mandate requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, and he's at the center of a lawsuit launched by former player Kassidy Woods accusing Rolovich and WSU of breach of contract, violating Woods' civil rights, and concealing COVID-19 cases at the school.
A win on Saturday night would soften the pressure that comes with all that.
Prediction: Washington State 35, Utah State 24
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks