Breaking Down Utah State

By Frank Gogola

After having its dreams of a second straight BCS bowl shattered by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship game, No. 23 football (12-1, 8-1 MAC) will play its final game of the season against the Utah State Aggies (8-5, 7-2 Mountain West). The MAC West Division-champion Huskies and the MW Mountain Division-champion Aggies will meet in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl at 8:30 p.m. CT on Dec. 26 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Football beat writer Frank Gogola (@FrankGogola) breaks down the Aggies’ key players.

Quarterback: Craig Harrison

Redshirt junior quarterback Craig Harrison leads an Aggies team that has been much maligned at the quarterback position. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound third-string quarterback was thrust into action Oct. 4 against BYU when junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a preseason Heisman trophy candidate, tore his ACL and MCL in the first quarter and was lost for the season. Harrison started the following game against Boise State before true freshman Darell Garretson took over for the remainder of games until he was knocked out with a helmet-to-helmet hit against Fresno State in the MW Championship game. Harrison completed 47.3 percent of his pass (35-of-74) for 434 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in nine games, including one start.

Running Back: Joey DeMartino

Redshirt senior running back Joey DeMartino is one of very few consistent skill-position players on the Utah State offense this season. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound tailback has shown his versatility by running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield and providing good blocking. DeMartino, with his deceptive speed, rushed for 1,078 net yards, which is the fifth-highest total in the MW, on 198 carries (5.4 yards per rush). His 12 rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth most in the MW, and his 82.9 rushing yards per game are sixth-most in the conference. In 13 games this season, including seven starts in the last eight games, he had 12 receptions for 117 yards and one touchdown.

Wide Receiver: Travis Van Leeuwen

Redshirt senior wide receiver Travis Van Leeuwen has emerged at the wide receiver position this season for the Aggies. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound wideout stands out in a wide receiver group that has seen 17 different players record at least one reception due to injuries. Van Leeuwen came into the 2013 season with only 43 receptions for 528 yards and three touchdowns in his first three season (36 games played, 10 games started). This season, he caught 50 passes for 638 yards and three touchdowns while starting in 10 games and playing in all 13 games. He is known as a very good route runner with exceptional hands and will go deep down the field to make big plays.

Offensive Line: Tyler Larsen

Redshirt senior center Tyler Larsen leads an offensive line that came into the season as one of the most experienced in the nation. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound offensive lineman has started all 51 games during his four years at Utah State and was named to the all-league first team twice. The Aggies’ offensive line came into the season with a combined 110 career starts (fourth-most in the nation) but lost redshirt senior right guard Kyle Whimpey to a torn patellar tendon in his right knee in the fifth game; the four other starters have each started in all 13 games. The offensive line has paved the way for the No. 5 scoring offense (32.6) in the MW, but only the No. 8 rushing offense (178.8) and the No. 10 pass offense (242.1). It has surrendered 31 sacks, 11th out of 12 MW teams.

Defensive Line: Paul Piukala

Senior defensive end Paul Piukala may only be in his second season at Utah State out of Laney Community College, but he continues to make a huge impact for the Aggies’ defense. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive lineman was described as the backbone of the defense and the heart and soul of the team. Fast and physical, Piukala leads the defensive line with 40 tackles and is second on the D-line with five tackles for loss. He has not recorded a sack but is tied for second on the team with three quarterback hurries. He also broke up one pass and forced one fumble. He is part of a run-stopping defense that is first in the MW and 11th in the nation in rushing defense (107.3).

Linebackers: Jake Doughty

Redshirt senior inside linebacker Jake Doughty has done it all while starting in all 13 games and directing the Utah State defense. The 6-foot, 234-pound former walk-on has recorded a team-high 140 total tackles, and his 10.8 tackles per game rank third-most in the conference and ninth-most in the nation. Doughty is third on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and has posted four quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and two sacks. In the turnover department, he has one interception, one forced fumble and fumble recovery, which he ran back for 86 yards in Utah State’s loss to Fresno State in the MW Championship game. He helms a defense that gave up only 17.3 points per game, which is first in the conference and seventh in the nation.

Secondary: Nevin Lawson

Senior cornerback Nevin Lawson has done a great job of covering and taking away the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. The 5-foot-10, 186-pound defensive back is very physical at the line of scrimmage and is able to use his hands effectively to disrupt passes. Lawson has intercepted four passes, which is tied for most on the team and tied for fourth-most in the conference. He leads the team with 17 passes defended, and his 1.31 passes defended per game rank third in the conference and tied for 10th in the nation. He is third in the secondary with 53 total tackles, second in the secondary with five tackles for loss and has forced one fumble. He is part of a defense that is second in the MW and 23rd in the nation in pass defense (224.8)

Special Teams: Bruce Natson

Sophomore wide receiver Bruce Natson has been a playmaker for Utah State in both the punt return and receiving game. The 5-foot-7, 151-pound speedy, elusive punt returner ran back 31 punts for 351 yards, with a long of 65 yards, and two touchdowns. His 11.3 yards per punt return rank fourth in the conference and his two punt-return touchdowns are tied for most in the conference. Natson is also featured as a wide receiver and leads the team with 56 receptions on the season while starting eight games and playing in all 13 games. He has racked up 384 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns through the air.