The Utah State Aggies roll into Rice-Eccles Stadium Friday night with a win over Southern Utah under their belt. In a 12-9 defensive slug-fest, the Aggies gave up only 163 yards of total offense to the T-Birds, which is tied for No. 7 in total defense so far this season. The Aggie defense has vastly improved over the last few years, and Kyle Whittingham can take a little credit for that, with his protege Gary Anderson bringing similar philosophies to Logan, and also with their defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kevin Clune having spent some time at Utah as a graduate assistant.
"They’re very sound. Kevin Clune, the defensive coordinator, was a grad assistant here [in 2001-2002] and really has taken a lot of the principles, things we do here and things he studied with him and has been successful at the University of Hawai’i and now Utah State." Whittingham said. "The thing that really jumps out at you is the soundness of their scheme. Fundamentally and technique-wise, they’re very good and they very seldom blow coverages or assignments. They’re very disciplined, they play hard and run to the football."
In 2010, Utah State ranked No. 101 in total defense. They improved in 2011, moving up to No. 50. They really hit their stride defensively starting in 2012 under former head coach Gary Anderson. In 2012, the Aggies ranked No. 14 in total defense. They were even better in 2013, ranking No. 12. 2014 was not as strong of a year for the Aggies, but they still managed to rank a very respectable No. 31 in total defense. Utah State did this while playing in the WAC and Mountain West, but do not count out the Aggies because of conference affiliation. They have multiple players on their defense that many Power 5 programs would love to have. They have also produced NFL talent like Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has been a key piece on the Seahawks' defense that has appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls.
At the heart of the Aggies 3-4 defense are two linebackers that have a good shot of playing on Sundays when their college careers are over. The first is No. 41 junior Nick Vigil who led the Aggies with 13 tackles last week, to add to the 180 he has so far in his first two seasons at Utah State. He did not sack Thunderbird quarterback Ammon Olsen last Saturday, but he has 12.5 sacks as an Aggie. The other is No. 9 senior Kyler Fackrell, who sat out most of 2014 after getting injured in the first game at Tennessee. At 6-5, 250, he has the physique of a player that most pro teams are looking for. A good 2015, and Fackrell could find his name called in next year's NFL Draft. He totaled 169 tackles in his first two season and got two more before his injury against the Volunteers last season. Fackrell also got to the quarterback eight times in his first two years and added two more sacks to his total against SUU and has four interceptions in his career with 125 return yards.
One of the other two starting linebackers will be familiar to the Utes. Former Ute LT Filiaga graduated after his sophomore season and transferred to Utah State. Filiaga had six tackles versus the Thunderbirds last week and 61 tackles and one sack last season for the Aggies before going down with an injury in November. Joining Fackrell, Filiaga, and Vigil at linebacker position is senior Torrey Green.
The most dynamic of the corners for the Aggies will not see the field Saturday. Senior Bryan Haynes, who had four sacks last season from the cornerback position, along with two other Aggies were suspended for the first two games of the season. Most likely staring for the suspended Haynes at corner is senior Tyler Floyd, who saw action in 13 of Utah State's 14 games last season. Opposite him at the other corner spot is sophomore Jalen Davis. Davis played in every game last year as a freshman and was seventh on the team in tackles with 60. Junior Devin Centers starts at free safety and finished with 74 tackles last season, good for fifth on the team. Senior Marwin Evans is the starter at strong safety. Evans played in every game last year for Utah State but only had 10 tackles.
The front three for the Aggies are junior Ricky Ali'ifua and senior Jordan Neilsen at defensive ends and senior David Moala at nose guard.
They will have a stiffer test going up against Devontae Booker and the Utah offense this week. The Aggies did face several very good rushing attacks in 2014. They faced the option attacks of Air Force and New Mexico, and they faced Jay Ajayi of Boise State, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. Utah State did a great job shutting down Air Force's triple option, holding the Falcons to only 155 yards, 3.04 yards per carry, and only one rushing touchdown. Air Force ranked No. 7 in rushing yards per game last season at 273 yards per game. Utah State struggled to slow down the No. 5 rushing offense of New Mexico, allowing the Lobos to run for 246 yards, over 5 yards per carry, and two rushing touchdowns. Utah State's worst game defending the run came against Boise State and Ajayi, who gashed the Aggies to the tune of 229 yards, over 8 yards per carry, and five touchdowns by himself. Booker is a similar to Ajayi in that both are big, physical running backs who are also great pass catchers.
The Aggies have been a very tough defensive team for several years now. Their defense will give Utah their best shot, with the extra motivation knowing this may be the last time these two teams square off in the foreseeable future.