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First look: Washington State opens season hosting new-look Utah State squad

Coach Blake Anderson directs Arkansas State during a 2018 game. After seven seasons guiding the Red Wolves, Anderson was hired in December to take the helm at Utah State.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State opens its second season under coach Nick Rolovich – and its first legitimate, 12-game campaign under the former Hawaii boss – against nonconference foe Utah State and its first-year coach in Blake Anderson.

Where is it? WSU’s recently renamed home venue, Gesa Field.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. PDT Saturday.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will broadcast the game.

Who is favored? The Cougars opened as 10-point favorites, and that number has since jumped to 16½.

How did they fare last year? Both teams had disappointing campaigns, with WSU going 1-3 in a truncated Pac-12 season that was greatly affected by the pandemic, and Utah State finishing 1-5 – and second-to-last in the Mountain West Conference. The Aggies fired coach Gary Andersen after an 0-3 start. Their closest loss came by 19 points.

Why WSU will win: The Cougars will be eager to debut the fully fledged form of Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, the installation of which was disrupted last season. WSU isn’t short on offensive threats and its deep, veteran defense was bright throughout camp. This team, which returns 20 starters, appears to have matured and cleaned up many shortcomings that defined the mistake-prone squad from last year. Hosting a Group of Five foe – an opponent coming off a rough season and still settling into its new coach’s philosophies – is a good opportunity for WSU to get the year started on the right foot. The Aggies are 0-12 on the road against Power Five opponents in the past decade, per Mountain West Wire, and the Cougs will have a full flock of fans at their backs for the first time since 2019. Last year, Utah State’s defense got bullied around, particularly in the ground game, and wound up surrendering 485 total yards per game. Only seven teams in the FBS posted a worse per-game average. Offensively, the Aggies mustered 276 yards each time out. Just four FBS teams ended the year with a lower average. Though this Utah State outfit features an impressive roster on paper, it will probably have to work through some kinks – a certain amount of instability is to be expected in Week 1 under a first-year coaching staff.

Why Utah State will win: The element of surprise is on the Aggies’ side. It’s difficult to predict the schemes Utah State will field, Rolovich admitted, considering the team brought in a completely new batch of coaches. The Aggies also augmented their roster with 15 FBS transfers – the list of newcomers includes experience at Miami, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon State, Texas and Michigan. Anderson’s teams have never been pushovers. He steered Arkansas State to fortune in 2014-20, compiling six winning seasons, two Sun Belt titles and two bowl wins. Statistically, the Red Wolves’ fast-paced attack consistently ranked in the top-20 overall in the FBS. Arkansas State leaned on the pass, and often racked up 500-plus yards and 40-plus points per game. So, WSU’s defense – its pass coverage and open-field tackling, specifically – will be tested. The Cougs’ passing defense was shredded for over 300 yards per game last year. Utah State shored up its defense via the transfer portal, adding a handful of new starters from major schools. The Aggies will aim to take advantage of the Cougars’ unknowns at the quarterback and receiver positions, and in their secondary. The expectations are low for Utah State, but then again, how can anyone know what to expect?

What happened last time? The schools haven’t met since 1961, a 34-14 Aggie win in Spokane. WSU is 2-1 all time in the series. The teams first played in 1949, with the Cougars emerging victorious, 33-0. During his four-year stay at Hawaii (2016-19), Rolovich’s Warriors went 0-2 vs. Utah State, losing 38-0 in 2017 and 56-17 in 2018.

Things to know

1. Anderson was named Utah State’s top man in December, and he promptly cleared out the coaching offices. His new offensive coordinator, Anthony Tucker, spent the past three years at Central Florida. His defensive coordinator, Ephraim Banda, was in charge of Miami’s safeties for the past five years. Because of all the various coaching backgrounds that make up Utah State’s staff, the Cougars have had their work cut out for them in the film room, Rolovich said.

2. Rolovich has been impressed by Utah State’s big-bodied quarterback in junior Logan Bonner, an efficient passer who transferred in from Arkansas State. Bonner will have six experienced targets to throw to and a pair of tested running backs behind him. The Aggies return standout pass-catchers like speedster Deven Thompkins (214 yards last season) and the 6-foot-6 Justin McGriff (185). Nebraska transfer Jamie Nance and Arkansas State transfer Brandon Bowling will bolster the receiving corps. The Cougs are highlighting former All-American return specialist Savon Scarver, too. The Aggies’ No. 1 rusher last year, Jaylen Warren, hopped ship to Oklahoma State. But they signed Oregon State transfer Calvin Tyler and returned senior Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who logged 180 yards on 41 totes last year. First-team All-SBC pick Justin Rice, one of four former Red Wolves on the team, will captain the defense at middle linebacker. That group boasts Power Five drop-downs in cornerback Kyle Mayberry (Kansas), safety Hunter Reynolds (Michigan), defensive tackle Phillip Paea (Michigan), and defensive ends Patrick Joyner (Miami) and Byron Vaughns (Texas).

3. Which quarterback will WSU trot out Saturday? That remains up in the air, Rolovich said Monday. Sophomore Jayden de Laura and grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano are neck and neck for the start. The coach hopes to choose a starter “in the next few days,” but he’s unsure whether he’ll announce his decision publicly. WSU released its Week 1 depth chart Monday afternoon. De Laura and Guarantano were listed side-by-side as potential starters. Notable depth chart developments include: freshman De’Zhaun Stribling and sophomore Donovan Ollie will start at outside receiver; junior Halid Djibril has apparently beaten out George Hicks III for free safety; and senior defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs was missing from the two-deep.

4. A few WSU connections are present on the Aggies’ staff. Tight ends coach DJ Tialavea is a cousin of WSU lineman Rodrick Tialavea. Cornerbacks coach Ray Brown was a defensive grad assistant for the Cougs in 2014. Defensive grad assistant Tim Burmeister worked for WSU in 2019 in a quality control role. Also of note: Utah State is located in Logan, Utah – the hometown of Luke Falk, a star former four-year Coug starter at quarterback.