Editor's note: On Wednesday afternoon, the Mountain West announced that Thursday night's scheduled game between Wyoming and Utah State had been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns within the Aggies' program.
It's been a rocky start for theUtah State Aggies. The head coach is gone amid a winless start to the season. And now heading into a game with another top-shelf rival, the program has dismissed its starting quarterback for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Interim head coach Frank Maile made it public Sunday that junior Jason Shelley, a transfer from Utah, is no longer with the Aggies. It's another blow for a squad trying to find a way to halt a four-game losing skid heading into Laramie, where it sets up against host the Wyoming Cowboys on Thursday.
"We have to be better," Maile told reporters. "We have to be better coaches. We have to coach this a little bit cleaner."
It didn't help last game that two coaches — offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder and co-defensive coordinator Stacy Collins — were absent after testing positive for COVID-19. That one saw Utah State lose to visiting Fresno State 35-16, dropping the Aggies to 0-4 for the first time since 2010.
"It's always been about two things for me, football-wise — effort and execution," Maile told the Utah Statesman. "Effort's never been a problem with our team. Right now it's really execution of our gameplan and sometimes that means simplifying things.
"We have talented kids — we have good players. They'll play hard for us. They'll play fast — they'll play physical. But we've got to put them in better situations to be able to execute that gameplan."
They'll need to against a Wyoming team champing at the bit to get back into action. The Cowboys' game last week against visiting Air Force was canceled because of COVID issues at the service academy. So heading into the Bridger's Battle against Utah State for the Mountain West affair, Wyoming is still smarting after a 34-24 road loss to Colorado State two weeks back.
"I'd say mindset is forgetting about that loss last week and moving on and just getting better every day and having the opportunity to get better on and off the field, both meeting-wise and practice-wise," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl told reporters.
Wyoming won its only other game at home in 2020, beating beat Hawaii 31-7 in October. However, they'll need to overcome some history to get back to their winning ways. The Cowboys trail all-time against Utah State, 26-40-4, and have lost six of the last eight meetings in a rivalry that dates back to 1903.
Utah State at Wyoming
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Wyoming -20.0
When Utah State Has the Ball
Andrew Peasley pushed Shelley in camp in a bid to become the starting quarterback. With Shelley gone, it was supposed to be the sophomore's show. But then COVID-19 stepped in and has pushed Peasley to the sidelines after he tested positive and is unavailable.
So Utah State is now turning to redshirt freshman Cooper Legas, who has yet to take a snap in the NCAA world.
"Cooper is a winner, man," Maile told reporters. "He is a competitor, and we are looking forward to his leadership and competitiveness leading the Aggies to a W."
That seems like wishful thinking with an offense that's struggled, averaging just 242.8 yards per game, up against a strong Wyoming defense that's better than its 357.0 yards per game average allowed shows. It's also a short week for the Aggies to prepare against a team that's been able to prepare for the better part of two weeks.
So Legas has to lean on a solid gameplan that's likely to feature the usual run-heavy attack — last week, 199 of Utah State's 343 total yards came along the ground. Senior running back Jaylen Warren had nine carries for 136 yards and a touchdown for his third career 100-yard game. He's got 252 on the year and is averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per carry.
Even though 12 different Aggies have caught passes from Shelley and Peasley this season, Deven Thompkins has really been the one target in the attack. The junior receiver has 214 receiving yards on 20 catches, including a 92-yard effort on three grabs against Fresno State. The next guy on the Aggies pass-catching list is sophomore receiver Justin McGriff with 80 yards on 10 receptions.
Yup... not a lot of offense at Utah State.
The Aggies could sure use more electricity from special-teams star Savon Scarver, an Athlon Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American. The senior returned his sixth career kickoff return for a touchdown, covering 94 yards, last week. And he scored on a 99-yarder against the Cowboys in Laramie two years ago.
When Wyoming Has the Ball
The Cowboys sport their own redshirt freshman quarterback in Levi Williams. But he's got a few games under his belt from which to draw experience. Williams is 44-of-80 for 660 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions on the season, and last game, he broke through with 321 yards through the air.
His growth is helped, of course, by the ground attack of junior Xazavian Valladay. The Cowboys star is among the conference's best running backs, with 397 yards on 82 carries for a 4.8-yard average. Valladay had 28 carries for 147 yards and one touchdown against Colorado State as part of the team's 465-yard performance.
Williams' top target last game was senior receiver Ayden Eberhardt, who caught seven passes for 132 yards. He adds to an ever-improving pass game that also includes Valladay (11 catches for 76 yards) and freshman receiver Isaiah Neyor (six catches for 179 yards). Eberhardt has 11 grabs for 173 yards on the year.
All that is tough on an Aggies defense that's been porous, allowing an average of 525.8 yards per game.
"Defensively, I don't think the score (last week) reflected how we played on the field once again," Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh told the Herald-Journal. "It starts with limiting the plays, the big plays, the explosive plays ... Run-wise, I think we were able to stop the run effectively and then later in the game getting them off the field on third downs. But again it comes down to the bigger plays.
"At the end of the day, those explosive plays are killing us," added Vongphachanh, who leads the team with 26 tackles in the last two games. "That's what we need to fix."
Like it or not, there's been a ton of change at Utah State in the past few weeks. But maybe it was time to make a switch at QB anyway. Fresh blood might inject some enthusiasm in a team that's been struggling to the tune of losing by an average of 26 points per game this season.
And how much worse can the freshman Legas be than Shelley, who's been pedestrian in 2020, including last week when he was just 9-of-24 for 144 yards against Fresno State? We'll find out in the fight for the Bridger Rifle, which stacks up to be a runaway by a well-rested, well-adjusted Wyoming side.
"I don't think we're in a position to overlook anybody," Bohl told reporters. "As opposed to focusing on some of the challenges Utah State is having — or maybe they're not having — we're focused on ourselves ... that's been our attention. Certainly whenever you change quarterbacks, there's going to be a little bit of different flavor ... (but) we're preparing for the schemes we've seen (from Utah State)."
Well-rested and at home against a struggling foe? Wyoming shouldn't have any troubles.
Prediction: Wyoming 44, Utah State 18
(Top photo courtesy of @wyo_football)