Utah State’s defense set the tone early and never let up during the Aggies’ early-morning practice Wednesday at the Laub Indoor Training Center.
“The defense had a good day today as far as everything,” USU wide receiver Travis Van Leeuwen said. “... They came out and drilled us in the mouth from the beginning of the practice to the end. We had our positives here and there throughout the practice, but a lot of improvement needs to come from this practice.”
One positive for Van Leeuwen and the rest of the first-team offense was driving down the field during the two-minute drill at the end of practice.
As proud as he was of the defense on Wednesday, first-year head coach Matt Wells emphasized the importance of finishing.
“The defense dominated from stretch,” Wells said. “They were ready to practice and it showed right from the stretch. They continued it through the whole day, right down to the very end, which is a good learning lesson for them that no matter how well they’re playing — whether the score is 6-3 and we had a game like that last year — they’ve got to finish. They’ve got to learn to finish.
“They gave up a fourth-and-long on the two-minute drill, so good job on the flip side from the offense. They were kind of running against the brick wall all day, not playing well and not executing, really, in any of the drills. It was a good job by them for hanging in there mentally.”
That nearly wasn’t the case, though.
The offense started at its own 10-yard line and on second down, Van Leeuwen hauled in a 20-yard pass from Chuckie Keeton.
On two of the next three plays, Keeton was sacked. Linebacker Kyler Fackrell had one of the sacks for a loss of seven yards, leaving the offense in a fourth-and-15 hole from its own 25.
“It’s a little bit on all of them — the O-line, running backs and quarterback,” Wells said. “The quarterback can’t give up a sack, we’ve got to protect a little bit better, we’ve got to get the ball out a little bit better. Maybe all that’s good and we’re not getting open on the other end. Usually, there are a lot of things that lead to a sack, not just the quarterback or O-line.”
The offense moved the chains, however, as Keeton hooked up with Bruce “JoJo” Natson for a gain of 34 yards on fourth down.
“Chuckie had good vision to find a guy and that’s been the mark of the offense all spring,” Wells said. “As soon as there is one breakdown, he has seen it and he’s taken advantage of it and they’ve capitalized. They haven’t missed. They were out of position on one play and he found it and that’s what a good offense has to do.”
Keeton then proceeded to complete passes to Van Leeuwen, Travis Reynolds and Natson before spiking it, setting up a field goal try.
“As far as an offensive unit, from the ones through the threes, I wouldn’t say it was a great day; we’ve had better,” Van Leeuwen said. “We’ll see what the film says, but give credit to the defense. The defense came out and had an awesome practice. They came out with their heads on fire, but I liked the way the offense finished in the two-minute drill.”
The second-team offense didn’t enjoy the same kind of success during the two-minute drill.
Quarterback Craig Harrison did pick up one first down courtesy of a 13-yard run on fourth-and-4, but the second-team defense stiffened afterward.
Despite facing a second-and-1 play from its own 38, the offense couldn’t advance the ball past that point as Harrison was sacked twice in a row by Nick Vigil and Devin Centers. Then on fourth-and-14, Harrison’s pass fell incomplete.
“I couldn’t do it by myself,” said Centers, who also had an interception on Wednesday. “The team sets me up. We disguise our defenses, which allows us to blitz and get people in there free to sack the quarterback.”
During the second down, play-the-third drill — where the offense tries to get a first down on either a second- or third-down play — the Aggies’ D was very impressive.
Safety Frankie Sutera, a junior, highlighted that drill by recovering a fumble in the end zone when the twos were going against the twos.
“That’s been an emphasis for them the last week, is getting off the field on third down,” Wells said. “That’s a drill that emphasizes that.”
Centers likes the physicality the defense has shown throughout spring.
“We’re getting more physical,” Centers said. “That’s a key thing we need to be good at it, is being physical. Even if a play goes wrong, if we’re physical then there’s still a chance we can win that play.”
The Aggies will hold a scrimmage today at Romney Stadium at approximately 3:20 p.m. In the event of inclement weather, USU will move indoors and hold a normal practice.
“It should be one good last major scrimmage before the spring game that will highlight situations,” Wells said. “There are individual battles that are still being decided on both sides of the ball. Offensivley, we’re looking for continued rhythm and execution, showing that they can convert in certain situations.
“Defensively, how will they react to certain situations that they didn't do so well in the last scrimmage? They've been playing well in the red zone and they continue to do that. We also want to continue to develop the leadership on both sides.”