From the 2020 season to 2021, Utah State football had the glow-up every UConn fan dreams of their own program having. After a 1-5 season in 2020 and the departure of head coach Gary Andersen, the Aggies hired former Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson and immediately turned things around.
Utah State went 11-1 and won the Mountain West in one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 season, beating conference powerhouse San Diego State in the Mountain West championship, then going on to defeat Oregon State in their bowl.
Utah State retains their starting quarterback, most efficient runner, and most of its offensive line, and have a wealth of depth to draw from on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no reason why the Aggies shouldn’t threaten for another Mountain West title in 2022, and will be yet another formidable opponent from the conference for the Husies to face during the opening week of the season — Fresno State (UConn’s week six opponent this year) hung a 49-0 shutout on them in the first game of 2021.
What to expect when UConn has the ball
UConn’s game plan against Utah State should rely rather heavily on creating big plays. Utah State’s defense was built on high-risk, high-reward play in the successful 2021 campaign, ranking in the top 25 in sack percentage. This really limited the time in the pocket that opponents could spend letting routes develop, but also led to a relatively high number of big plays hitting against them in the run game. Nate Carter, Robert Burns and the rest of the UConn running back room might be licking their chops at the opportunity to break away from the line of scrimmage, but the Aggies’ willingness to send pressure will be a rather large early test for a UConn offensive line that hasn’t been able to work together as a starting unit for much of fall camp.
Even after losing star receiver Cam Ross for the season, UConn has a deep receiving room featuring sophomore Keelan Marion, the leading receiver in 2021, and Kevens Clercius, who is due for a bigger role in the offense. The Huskies have the receiving options to get down the field for new offensive coordinator Nick Charlton’s vertical play action offense to work correctly.
They need to find a quarterback to throw it down to the field to them first. Despite the depth chart listing four potential starters, Penn State transfer Ta’quan Roberson is expected to at least start the game at quarterback. Can he be accurate enough in play-action to effectively cause the Aggies some issues? Will the offensive line be able to protect him long enough for him to?
Utah State returns a patchwork of players in their front seven, but has a wealth of depth coming in to replace them. End Nick Heninger and tackle Marcus Moore both graduated in the spring, taking with them a combined 32 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Waiting in the wings is Byron Vaughns, a junior who transferred in from Texas during the 2021 offseason and had 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Another name to watch in that position group is defensive end Daniel Grzesiak, a graduate transfer from Nevada where he was a long-time starter.
The linebacking corps has more new faces still, with AJ Vongphachanh as the most experienced returner, bringing 55 tackles in from the 2021 season, and was the leading tackler on the team in the shortened 2020 season. Utah State had poor luck in that position in the offseason, with Arkansas State transfer Anthony Switzer tore his ACL. Washington transfer MJ Tafisi won a heated competition for the middle linebacker position.
The defensive backfield is similarly bare, as All-Mountain West safety Shaq Bond graduated and cornerback Cam Lampkin transferred to Washington State. But their leading returning tackler, Hunter Reynolds, is back at strong safety along with senior Michael Anyanwu, who provides leadership at the corner position.
When Utah State has the ball
With veteran QB Logan Bonner lining up under center, it could be a long day for UConn’s defensive backs. The Arkansas State transfer followed his head coach to Utah and led an offensive renaissance along with offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker. Bonner ended the year with 3,628 passing yards, 36 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions, and the team rose from No. 120 in the country to top-20 in passing yards per game.
The Aggies will again bring their high-tempo offense to the field in the first game of 2022, letting their QB make calls at the line of scrimmage. If the Huskies are not prepared for it, an offense like that can put the game out of reach in a hurry. Utah State likes to attack vertically with RPOs, a genre of plays that UConn should be reasonably equipped to handle with an experienced linebacking corps anchored by Jackson Mitchell and Ian Swenson.
But UConn’s best protection against this potent passing attack might be the timing of the game. Utah State is breaking in almost an entirely new receiving corps. The Aggies’ top three receivers and their starting tight end are all gone, and Bonner will have to build chemistry immediately with his pass-catchers.
It’s the one saving grace for a UConn secondary that has been shaky in recent years, and features some unexpected names listed as starters on the depth chart. Myles Bell, who was one of the better defensive backs on the team before his injury in the middle of the 2021 season, and Chris Shearin, a Mizzou transfer who many tabbed to start after a strong fall camp, both find themselves listed as backups. Tre Wortham, who was solid last year with eight pass break-ups, and Kaleb Anthony, who took over the starting roll in the latter half of the season, take their place. Senior wideout Justin McGriff should be the biggest challenge for the UConn secondary to cover, at 6-6 and 220 lbs, along with Xavier Williams who transferred in from Alabama.
Utah State’s rushing attack will also have a relatively new look. After sharing the touches last year with Elelyon Noah, senior running back Calvin Tyler Jr. takes the reins as the leading rusher from 2021 and will run behind an offensive line that returns all five starters and their leading backup. UConn’s defensive line, by contrast, encountered the most attrition out of any position group on the team, with three starters departing in the offseason — Travis Jones to the Baltimore Ravens, Lwal Uguak as a transfer to TCU and Kevon Jones leaving the team due to personal reasons. Sokoya McDuffie, the Old Dominion transfer, enters the starting lineup with the most hype, along with returners Dal’mont Gourdine and Eric Watts.
Utah State seems primed and ready to put up points on a reconfigured UConn defense, though the degree they’re able to do so depends on Bonner’s ability to gain chemistry with his receivers. UConn has a few things of their own to figure out on offense, and will have to be able to get the running game going to set up the play action, then have to protect the quarterback long enough for routes to develop. The Aggies should put up points, and the only question is how long the Huskies can hang around
Final Score: Utah State 41, UConn 14