by Daniel Olsen
While the Utah State Aggies struggled in 2020, they have a new coach and new expectations in 2021. It’s time to pull out the crystal ball and see just how the upcoming football season will go for USU. With the kickoff being 78 days away, it’s time to start with the preview of the home opener against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
Game 2: vs North Dakota
These two teams have never matched up on the gridiron in program history. That will change when the two face off on Friday, September 10, 2021. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network and will kick off at 7 PM Mountain Time at Maverik Stadium.
The Fighting Hawks have made a recent trip to Utah, but that time they didn’t stray too far from the Salt Lake City airport. They played the Utah Utes in nearby Rice Eccles Stadium in 2017. The Utes won that game 37-16 thanks to 128 rushing yards from Zack Moss and a defense that surrendered just 55 total rushing yards.
The Aggies haven’t lost to an FCS school in just over two decades. In 2000, they lost a close 27-24 contest to the Idaho State Bengals. However, they have had a few close calls since then. They needed a punt return touchdown to stave off an upset attempt from the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in 2015.
This game should provide a more challenging matchup than the Aggies have seen since then. They have outscored FCS opponents 231-48 since that thriller. The Fighting Hawks did win the last time they played a Mountain West opponent. That was back in 2015 when they pulled off the upset over the Wyoming Cowboys. Some might argue it wasn’t an upset as the Fighting Hawks finished the year with a respectable 7-4 record and the Wyoming Cowboys were an abysmal 2-10.
2020-2021 Season in Review
The Aggies struggled in their conference-only schedule last fall while North Dakota blossomed in a change of scenery in the spring. In 2020, the Aggies played six games and won just one of them. It was a hard fought win on Thanksgiving night over the New Mexico Lobos. Their game against Wyoming was cancelled due to COVID. The players also sat out in the season finale to protest remarks by the USU President that they viewed as discriminatory.
North Dakota had a solid 5-2 season and finished number six in the FCS Coaches Poll. They defeated Missouri State in the first round before losing to powerhouse James Madison in the quarterfinals.
The Aggies hope that the hire of Blake Anderson will be a change to get the program in the right direction. So far, it looks like they are on the right track with a solid recruiting class for the first year. With an offensive minded coach, they will look to score more points this year. Coach Anderson fielded teams that scored 25 or more points per game in each of his seasons at Arkansas State.
The Fighting Hawks might not have the size to compete with the Aggies in every matchup. However, they have a few dangerous players that could make the Aggies play if they can’t exploit a smaller offensive line. The Aggies were in the bottom quarter of FBS teams in receiving yards allowed. They will need to be more sound defensively or this could turn into a shootout.
Players to watch for
According to Mountain West Wire, running back Otis Weah, quarterback Tommy Schuster and linebacker Noah Larson are all the key players to look for. You can also listen to our in-depth interview with a North Dakota insider on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Final Score Prediction:
The Aggies will win, but it may not be the four touchdown margin that one might expect in an FCS matchup. If the Aggies win or are at least competitive with the Washington State Cougars in Week 1, this could be a trap game. This precedes their first conference matchup in Week 3 against the Air Force Falcons.
Expect to see the Fighting Hawks pay homage to their name and fight early on. They will then fade as the game goes on. If they have enough fight in them, they may add a few more scores to make the game look closer than the final score will indicate. This game seems like it could be anywhere between a one or two possession win for the Aggies.
USU 31 North Dakota 21