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At this point, no one really knows who the 2023 Utah State Aggies are.
At 1-3 on the year, with losses to Iowa, Air Force and now James Madison (4-0), the Aggies on paper are not a good team.
And had people tuned into their loss to the Dukes on Saturday night, specifically the first quarter, that would have seemed readily apparent.
Through the first half of the Aggies’ 45-38 loss at home to JMU, USU was bad. Realistically, worse than bad.
In the first quarter, Utah State was outscored 17-0 and outgained on offense 193 yards to -22 yards.
Yes, the Aggies recorded negative yards on offense in the opening period, which doesn’t even accurately convey the futility that was on display by the home team inside Maverik Stadium.
USU didn’t have a positive offense play until its third offensive series of the game and it came on a 5-yard run on 3rd and 21.
That run, by back Davon Booth, was the only positive offensive play of the quarter for Utah State.
Defensively, USU couldn’t do much of anything right either, as James Madison scored every time it touched the ball.
The Dukes tallied two touchdowns and a field goal in the first quarter, with another touchdown capping off a fourth offensive series that started in the first quarter and ended in the second.
And yet, had peopled tuned in at any other point in the game during second through fourth quarters, they would have seen a Utah State group that at times appeared to be capable team, at other times a great team and even a few times looked like an elite football team.
After falling behind by three scores, Utah State rallied to outscore James Madison 38-28 the rest of the way, ultimately winning the total offense battle, the turnover battle and the third down battle.
True freshman quarterback McCae Hillstead was electric, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start (he also finished with three interceptions). Two of those touchdown passes went for 60-plus yards.
Utah State forced five turnovers — two interceptions and three fumbles — the type of havoc creating defense to be envied.
Utah State had a genuine shot to pull off a miraculous comeback, tying the game at 38 points apiece early in the fourth quarter, and then gaining possession of the ball with the game tied and 8:48 left.
The Aggies ultimately came up short and lost to JMU, though, and if that sounds familiar it is, because in each of Utah State’s losses this season, it has had a chance to rally for victory after a dismal start but came up short.
Against Iowa, Utah State outplayed the Hawkeyes in the final three quarters, but the offense got going just a little to late after an ice-cold start.
Against Air Force, the Aggies were completely outclassed to start the game, and then with Hillstead under center after he replaced incumbent starter Cooper Legas, rallied to make things at least palatable by the end.
There is an argument to be made that if you removed the first quarter of games, Utah State would be undefeated this season, which would make the Aggies genuine Mountain West Conference contenders.
Of course, three quarter games don’t exist and the Aggies have been as Jekyll and Hyde in the games they’ve played so far as you can imagine.
And they are 1-3.
So who are the 2023 Aggies? Are they a good team? A bad team that keeps things interesting? Something in between, similar to the 6-7 team from a year ago?
With 60-plus new players on the roster, no one really knows. Not yet at least.
And that’s the honest answer (until more losses pile up, or some more wins start to materialize).
“We brought in 60 guys in from all over the country to fill the locker room,” Utah State head coach Blake Anderson said.
“This is not a one game thing. It’s not a one season thing. This is this is something we’ve got to do now to be able to be competitive every year. This is where we’re at. It is a battle to rebuild a roster that was decimated by the transfer portal and NIL.”
After watching his team rally against James Madison, Anderson is confident in one thing about the 2023 version of Utah State.
They have a will, a “fight” as he described it, that is indomitable.
And it is hard to argue with him after watching Utah State nearly rally from daunting deficits in back-to-back weeks.
“As you can imagine, (I am) disappointed with the outcome, but beyond proud that they fought and clawed back into that game and made it a game,” Anderson said.
“They made it 38-38 and I would have loved to have found a way to finish it. You can’t turn the ball over, and at the end of the day we made a couple mistakes that you can’t make in that game, but that group will fight. We played hard and we just got to play better.”
Where the fight comes from, Anderson and company believe, are the new players on the team.
Or as wide receiver Terrell Vaughn put it, “last year we probably would’ve just given up, but this year we just got to make a full game out of it.”
Said Anderson: “They’ve bought it, and I’m super proud. I want to win, but in a lot of ways we won in a lot of areas tonight to get back in that game and there’ll be a lot of residual benefit from that.
“We want the W on the board, but that group cares. They’ve shown it to us every day, they’ve shown us four weeks in a row now. They do not shy away from work, they do not shy away from effort. They want to be coached and want to be coached hard. We just have to keep battling to get better.”
To put it simply, belief is not lacking in the Aggies locker room, even after repeated losses and a 1-3 start.
No one is satisfied with how things have gone, but there is a strong sentiment that USU is better than its record right now.
“Man, we’re one half away from dominating everybody that we play. Like, it’s crazy,” linebacker Anthony Switzer said. “I know this is a good team, and we showed it in the second half.”
The big question remaining is how to avoid the dismal starts that have plagued the team thus far, and truth be told those slow starts aren’t unique to this season either, going back to both the 2022 and 2021 campaigns.
Anderson doesn’t have the answer. He conceded that Saturday.
But with the potential shown by his team the last two weeks, he knows they need to find a solution to their slow starts in a hurry or they might just be a bad team and not one with potential.
“If I had that answer we’d be 4-0 right now,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of inexperience in there and I think, for whatever reason, it takes a little while for this group to settle in and take a deep breath and realize it’s just football.
“How do we get that (learning) curve to speed up? I wish I had the answer, and I don’t want to do something gimmicky. I want to do something that’s real, that’s tangible and that actually might create some positive.
“We’ve all seen that this is a team that when it gets to a point can compete with anybody, so it is a challenge and we’ve got to answer it, and the sooner we answer it the more likely we are to win games.”
And the sooner everyone will be to understanding exactly who the 2023 Aggies are.