Brandon Gurney, who covers BYU, and Kraig Williams, who covers Utah State, break down the matchups when Utah State has the football this Friday. This is the first part of a two-part preview.
Overview of Utah State rushing
Utah State has gotten the rep of a run-heavy school after sending Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams to the NFL the last two years. This year the Aggies have been good but not great on the ground, averaging just over 200 yards a game on the ground. Junior Joe Hill was pegged to be the guy in the preseason but has been battling through injuries early in the season and has yet to hit full stride. He is currently day-to-day and a question mark against BYU.
Joey DeMartino has stepped into the void and preformed pretty well. In his last three games, DeMartino has racked up 34 carries for 297 yards (8.7 yards per carry). DeMartino might not have the same game-breaking speed that Hill posseses, but has been able to break off his fair share of big plays.
After Hill and DeMartino, the Aggies' third leading rusher is quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The junior signal caller is always a threat on the read option and is equally capable of turning a broken passing play into a long run if the defense doesn’t keep containment.
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The Cougar defensive front allows just 119.2 yards rushing per game on a 3.1 yard per rush average. BYU operates out of a 3-4 base that is headed by senior nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, who is third on the team in tackles with 25. Manumaleuna is a four-year starter who possesses remarkable agility and quickness for someone of his size and stature. He's flanked by sophomores Bronson Kaufusi and Remington Peck at the two end positions.
Linebacker is the strength of the Cougar defense. The group is led by senior outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, but is strong at all four positions despite the loss of senior inside linebacker Spencer Hadley, who is serving out a five-game suspension.
Offensive guard Kyle Whimpey was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the Aggies' last game against San Jose State. The replacement for Whimpey, either Sini Tauauve’a or Bill Vavau, will be the key against BYU’s talented front seven. USU averages just over 200 yards per game on the ground and was held under that mark in losses to Utah and USC. Having a consistent running attack to give the offense balance will be a key for the Aggie offense.
Containing quarterback Chuckie Keeton is the big key in defending what Utah State does offensively. Last year the Cougars held Keeton to just 23 yards rushing on 10 carries and will hope to do the same on Friday. The Cougars will have to maintain gap discipline — particularly at the outside linebacker and end positions to limit Keeton's running opportunities.
The Aggies may have found something in DeMartino, who was one of the Aggies' only weapons against USC two weeks ago. Against a very talented BYU defense expect the Aggies to come in under their season average, but still have some success on the ground finishing somewhere around the 150 yard mark with DeMartino, Keeton and Hill (if healthy) taking the bulk of the load.
BYU has done well in holding the opposition's top running backs to under their season average, but needs to limit big-play opportunities. Look for the Cougars to hold DeMartino to under his season average, but they should be hard-pressed to match last year's success against Keeton.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton has taken another step forward in his junior year. Keeton is completing 71 percent of his passes and has thrown 17 touchdowns, the second highest mark in the country, compared to just a single interception. In the two biggest games of the season, Keeton shredded Utah (31-40, 314 yards, 2 TDs), but was made to look average against USC (21-29, 179, 2 TDs).
The Aggies lack a wide out who really puts a scare into a defense, but they have a lot of solid pieces. Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen will get the start outside and are both capable route runners with decent speed and hands. Bruce Natson is USU’s best slot receiver. Natson is only 5-foot-7 but has excellent hands and is a go-to guy on short yardage passes. Brandon Swindall has been Keeton’s number one target in the red zone with four TD catches. Tight end D.J. Tialavea is coming on a bit as a receiver, but is primarily a blocker, and Keegan Andersen has showed some flashes in the last few weeks.
The Cougars have allowed just 201.2 yards per game through the air this season. They present a zone-heavy scheme that is led by two stellar starting safeties — senior Daniel Sorensen and junior Craig Bills. Robertson Daniel has proven adequate at one cornerback position while the platoon of Sky PoVey, Mike Hague and Dallin Leavitt will continue to man the other corner spot.
The pass rush has produced just six sacks on the year and is led by Fua and Peck, who have two sacks apiece through four games.
As the Utes found out on opening day, contained pressure is the key against Keeton. On big blitzes, Keeton can escape the pocket and make a play with his feet and still keep his eyes downfield to throw the ball. Against three-man rushes, Keeton is more than happy to sit back and pick apart a secondary with his very accurate arm. That’s why the key matchup for the Cougars will be BYU’s pass rush versus the Aggie offensive line and Keeton’s legs. If the Cougars don’t hurry Keeton, he will find an open receiver, and he rarely misses his target.
It's again all about Keeton and taking away his strengths. The standout quarterback is very good at pre-snap reads and beating defenses with quick slants and hitches on first down. The Cougars were able to force many first-down incompletions last season, which led to long-yardage situations on second and third downs.
The Cougars have yet to face a quarterback as good as Keeton, and need to guard effectively against the big plays that burned them two weeks ago against Utah. The Aggies like to max-protect when attempting to beat a defense deep, which makes an effective pass rush key. The Cougars will need to provide a better pass rush than they have while containing Keeton on the edge.
Keeton has improved by leaps and bounds each season, but early in his career the Cougars have had his number. Two of his worst games have come against BYU. As a true freshman he finished just 13-25 for 122 yards in Provo and last season was just 22-38 for 202 yards. With another year of experience and the crowd on his side this year, look for Keeton to improve upon those efforts in Provo. If Keeton can take care of the ball and manage around 250 yards and a couple of touchdowns, that would be an excellent game for the junior.
Utah State, and Keeton specifically, will likely present the toughest test the secondary has faced so far this season. The defense needs to take away Keeton's quick-hitters on first down while guarding against the deep opportunities, which won't be easy. Look for Keeton to improve upon the 202 yards he produced last year and exploit BYU's relatively inexperienced corners on occasion.
Gurney and Williams will break down the matchups when BYU has the football on Thursday.