When Utah State hit the road to take on Wisconsin in last season’s opener, things didn’t go well.
After just one play — a snap over the quarterback’s head — it was clear the Aggies were in for a long day at Camp Randall Stadium.
With a similar trip to Spartan Stadium to open the 2018 season against No. 11 Michigan State on Friday, the Aggies are feeling better about their chances against another of the Big Ten’s top teams.
“It’s easy to draw the comparison because it’s on the road, Big Ten, Wisconsin and Michigan State are gonna compete for the Big Ten championship and a playoff berth and that’s probably the case again this year,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “The difference with us is we don’t have near as many first-year starters going into this game as we did last year.
“We’ve got more experienced players. Now, does that lead to better play and more points and all that stuff? Obviously, that remains to be seen, but there’s not near as much inexperience going into the game as we were last year.”
This season, the Aggies return 18 starters, just one less than Michigan State. And that, like with the Spartans, has the confidence building for a team that won six games last season and played in a bowl game for the sixth time in seven years.
And even though last season’s trip to Madison, Wis., ended poorly, the Aggies led 10-0 before things fell apart. Having that experience along with the number of returning players has them feeling like they can compete.
“They obviously have got a lot of returning people as we do,” Utah State senior safety Gaje Ferguson said. “I expect them to be good at what they do. I expect them to be a disciplined, sound football team.
“I think their quarterback (Brian Lewerke) is a good player. He can make a lot of plays on his feet and throwing. They’ve got a good running back, a couple good receivers coming back. It will be a competitive game, a lot of talent on the field and I expect them to be a disciplined group.”
Ferguson and the defense will have their hands full after ranking seventh in total defense last season in the Mountain West, as well as ninth in rushing defense by allowing 217.2 yards a game.
They’ll be tasked with slowing down senior running back LJ Scott and a physical offensive line, but they’ll do that feeling like they can at least match up with Lewerke and his top receivers — Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart and Cody White.
“We have a lot of receivers that are that are similar,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got some big bodies but also some very fast guys that emulate or are similar to what they have on their receiving corps. So we’ve seen that all camp, been competing against it all camp and that prepares us for what we’re gonna see, what we’re gonna be faced with against at Michigan State. So I feel very comfortable with that, and very confident in our guys in the secondary to handle that. It’s nothing we haven’t seen.”
What Wells sees as the biggest challenge is running the ball against the Spartans, who he said is “one of the best teams in the country.”
Wells said he believes that even though Michigan State has a talented secondary, it’s up front where the Spartans are toughest after they ranked second in the nation last season against the run.
“Big, strong, physical,” Wells said. “Hopefully the pace (of our offense) can wear them out a little bit, get them tired. There’s no secret we’re gonna play with pace on offense. But to see where they rank coming out of last year against the teams they did it against I think is pretty impressive. They’re deep, they’re talented. As I said, it will be the best we see all year.”