Quarterback Josh Love is not related to the Beach Boys, Kurt Cobain’s widow or Utah State’s Jordan Love. Nor to Reggie Jackson, even though Love was “Mr. October,” throwing for 1,342 yards, with 10 TDs against two picks, and a 153.9 efficiency rating last month. His preparation involves meeting twice weekly with Charles Tadaro, a PhD candidate in psychology who offers tips on focusing and visual cues. On the field, Love has grown into a confident conductor of a multi-pronged offense. “He’s a super leader,” left guard Troy Kowalski said. “He’ll keep you in a positive mind-set. And he’s a heck of a ballplayer. It’s easy to block for him.” The offense takes on many looks: four wide, double tight ends, motions, shifts and options. Tight end Josh Oliver’s graduation opened the way for a three-player rotation at tight end/H-back. Billy Bob Humphreys, Derrick Deese and Brett Foley have combined for 30 receptions, with 22 going for first downs, while providing protection on the line, off set, after a motion or in a stack tandem. When Love’s in the shotgun, the back will align to the side, with triple-option potential. The back can block the interior rush, take the handoff from Love, or trail for a pitch. If defenses cram the box to counter the power possibilities, it creates opportunities for speedy Bailey Gaither (laser-timed 4.45 seconds over 40 yards) and Tre Walker. Gaither’s tip-tip-tip, one-handed catch against Army went viral. At 5-11, Walker is surprisingly skilled on jump-ball passes.
Each practice begins with a stop. The open-tackling drill can emphasize particulars — near foot, near hip — and the one-on-ones of honing wrap-up techniques. Then there are the video sessions. Linebacker Ethan Aguayo has said he studies videos intensively during the year, then after the season, reviews them again to catch faults he might have missed. Despite playing in six of nine games, Aguayo leads with 79 tackles (13.2 per game), jump-started with 20 in the opener against Northern Colorado. Jesse Osuna, who sat out the Boise State game after being called for targeting the previous week, is back in the mix. In the 3-4, outside linebckers Osuna, Rico Tolefree and Hadari Darden line up in the flats, dropping into coverage or crashing down on the perimeter. Kyle Harmon is a physical middle linebacker who has a knack for boring through gaps. Viliami Fehoko is a speedy end noted for spinning out of the blocks of grasping offensive linemen. The Spartans have an aggressive pass defenses, allowing 207.1 yards per game. It begins up front (eight sacks the past two games, including five against Army). On the back end, safety Jay Lenard often starts in a single-deep coverage, giving him a panoramic view of the offense. Lenard is used to moving around, having lived in Japan, Florida, California and Texas. The Spartans have more interceptions (14) than TD passes allowed (10).
Human resources were busy in the offseason trying to replace Bryce Crawford, whose graduation created openings on point-scoring kicks, kickoffs and punts. Matt Mercurio, who redshirted last season, has converted on 15 of 18 FGs, including the past 12 in a row. Chris Wood, who transferred from a JC in January, has launched 51 kickoffs (22 have been returned). Alex Galland’s punts are averaging 4.37 fewer yards than Crawford’s boots in 2018.
The coaches were evasive on whether Cole McDonald or Chevan Cordeiro would take the first snap. Head coach Nick Rolovich had hinted that both quarterbacks probably would have roles in tonight’s game. Lost in this debate is that McDonald, who struggled in the third quarter last week but has otherwise been more than efficient, is probably the leading candidate for the league’s MVP. McDonald is third nationally with 2,796 passing yards, and tops the Mountain West with 25 TD passes. McDonald has been sacked nine times in 364 pass plays. On non-sack runs, McDonald’s 7.5 average is best among UH’s regular backfield players. Cordeiro has been a strong closer. In the fourth quarter, 47.6 percent of Cordeiro’s completions were beyond the line-to-gain marker. It took a few games for the Warriors to adjust without power back Dayton Furuta, the so-called “Froot Train.” The short-yardage specialist, who suffered an injury in the second game, often would churn for extra yards. But in recent weeks, running backs Miles Reed and Fred Holly III have proven to be all-down backs. Reed used speed and spin moves to avoid or escape would-be tacklers. Holly has gained muscle since his freshman year, and now appears to have regained his first-step quickness and second-gear drive. Right wideout JoJo Ward has been targeted fewer times against collapsing coverages, but his vertical threat has made him a valuable decoy when he draws defenders to open the edge for the running game and clear paths for the other receivers.
The degree of difficulty has been high for a defense that has endured penalties, injuries and other circumstances. The Warriors have not played a full game with all their top defenders. Against Fresno State, ailments short-handed the Warriors on the front (3-technique Kendall Hune), back (safety Kalen Hicks) and middle (Kana‘i Picanco). This season, two of their hardest hitters — linebacker Jeremiah Pritchard and Khoury Bethley — were tossed in the first quarter of games because of targeting. Last week, Pritchard was penalized on a key third down for an illegal block to the back, a rare call against a defender. The Warriors also have had to defend on shortened fields — the opponents’ 42, on average, following a UH turnover; the 36 on a failed fourth-down attempt. The Warriors spend large portions of practices working on fundamentals and techniques to avoid lapsing into mistakes. “You have guys executing correctly through the course of a game, and then the same call, the same situation, the same stimulus happens, and we don’t,” defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said. “Some of that is youth at certain positions. Some of it is eye discipline. Those are the things we work on in practice.”
After missing five of his first seven FG attempts, Ryan Meskell hasn’t missed since, a span of five kicks in seven weeks. Only 39 percent of his kickoffs have been returned. One that was not was his onside attempt that struck a Fresno State player and was recovered by Darius Muasau. “It’s something we’ve practiced since fall camp,” special teams coordinator Michael Ghobrial said. The key was Meskell’s no-look move — he positioned as if he was going right, but then kicked left — and he went with a knuckleball launch. “We wanted to see what Meskell’s good at and hits the most efficiently,” Ghobrial said.