Utah State is one of the steadiest football programs outside of the power conferences and has been for the past four or five years. While the most recognizable face of that success is still redshirt senior Chuckie Keeton, the defense has kept the program relevant while injuries prevented Keeton from making an impact over the past two seasons.
DE Jordan Nielsen (Sr., 6-5, 275), NG David Moala (Sr., 6-2, 300), DE Ricky Ali'ifua (Jr., 6-2, 285)
Typically a 3-4 defensive front calls for bigger bodies to hold the edge. Both starting ends deliver, with Nielsen coming in at 6-5 and 275 pounds and Ali'ifua just as imposing at 6-2 and 285. Moala has the size necessary to plug up the middle at nose guard, and together the three do a good job of taking up space and allowing a talented group of linebackers to fly in around them.
Moala is the least experienced of the group, having played in 10 games but started none. Ali'ifua played a slightly larger role last season, but is also being asked to take a big step forward this year.
Nielsen has been an important rotational contributor on this line since his redshirt freshman season in 2012, and starting since the end of 2013. His 53 tackles and 7.0 tackles earned him Honorable Mention All-MWC in 2014.
OLB Kyler Fackrell (Sr., 6-5, 250), ILB LT Fillaga (Sr., 5-11, 245), ILB Nick Vigil (Jr., 6-2, 235), OLB Torrey Green (Sr., 6-2, 235)
It's fairly rare that a Mountain West school can head to face a Pac-12 program on the road and feel they have a physical advantage. This is a big group, especially Fackrell , who isn't much smaller than Joe Mathis, one of our strongside defensive ends. On top of the size comes experience. Every starter returns from last season except for Fackrell, a senior who would have started if not for a torn ACL.
Nick Vigil is the star of this defense coming off of a ridiculous sophomore season. 123 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and an interception earned him 1st Team All-MWC.
Fackrell was a 2nd Team All-MWC standout in 2013. Judging by his 11 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 2.0 sacks through two games, I'm assuming he has recovered well from the ACL tear. Meanwhile, Vigil has already somehow racked up 25 tackles and 3.0 TFLs.
The other two starters, Fillaga and Green, are solid players who started a few games last season. Honestly, I think this is one of the better linebacking corps that the Huskies will face all season.
CB Jalen Davis (So., 5-10, 175), SS Marwin Evans (Sr., 6-0, 210), FS Devin Centers (Jr., 5-9, 200), CB Deshane Hines (Sr., 5-10, 185)
While it's probably not fair to call this secondary a weakness, this unit is not as decorated as the front seven. Still, they performed admirably against Utah, allowing Travis Wilson to complete 9 of 12 passes, but for only 76 yards. When he left the game, Kendal Thompson completed 8 of 10, but again for a mere 56 yards. Utah State lost 24-14, but gave up all those points on the ground.
Keep an eye on Jalen Davis, who started from week one last season as a true freshman, recording 66 tackles and two interceptions. Outside of Davis we have experienced upperclassmen, with Centers being described as a "leader in the secondary" for 2015 after earning All-MWC Honorable Mention last season.
ILB Nick Vigil
Well, I already sang Vigil's praises further up the page. He is the type of linebacker an offense has to account for. He will range all across the field to make tackles and factor in to the pass rush at times. He also has a knack for forcing turnovers, through his tackling (five forced fumbles in 2014) or his pass defense (two interceptions).
DE Jordan Nielsen
If the Utah State defensive front is to out-battle the young Husky offensive line and replicate Boise State's run-stopping performance, Nielsen will need to be a big reason why. Given that his two co-starters on the line are more journeymen than stars, there will be a ton of pressure on Nielsen to dominate the lineman across from him on every single play. At his best, Nielsen could force Washington's hand, funneling run plays to the opposite side and making life easier on the linebackers behind him.
I was really impressed with this defense in the 24-14 loss to Utah. For the second time in three weeks the Huskies will face a Mountain West team with a front seven that is at worst comparable in size to that of any Pac-12 program.
For Jake Browning and the Husky offense, it continues a nice early season progression. First, the trip to Boise State provided a sink or swim experience. Despite the defeat, the true freshman QB never lost his confidence completely. Last week the Huskies were served up an inferior opponent at home to remind them of their talent and potential.
Now, on the spectrum of difficulty, this Utah State at Husky Stadium matchup falls comfortably between a ranked opponent on the road and an FCS cupcake.
One thing to watch: Browning against the blitz. This defense is aggressive by nature, and those big linebackers will blitz frequently. This is a bit concerning given that one of Browning's shortcomings against Boise State as well as Sac State has been delivering an accurate ball in the face of a potent rush. This is typical for a young player, but something that needs to improve quickly if the Huskies are to progress offensively in time for the conference slate.
This is one reason why we will likely still see a lot of Dwayne Washington despite Gaskin's breakout performance. The guy knows how to pick up a blocker, and Browning will need his help. Of course, he'll also need help from his actual offensive line, perhaps the weakest unit on the team against Sac State.
Even if the O-line play picks up, Browning will need to make good decisions and rely on his quick release. It was great to see him fearlessly spread the ball around to so many different receivers in different areas of the field, yet we all know that a better defense would have picked off a minimum of two passes and possibly several more. This is that better defense, and he can't rely on the bad hands of defensive backs for the second straight week.
Overall I am cautiously optimistic that the Huskies can sustain some drives and keep from over-burdening the Husky defense. Still, it will be ugly against such an experienced Utah State defense. Expect Browning to run for his life on some plays, and don't be surprised if the second half plays out a lot better than the first. That being said, I expect that at the end of four quarters we will say the offense and its true freshman quarterback took a step forward.