Q&A with Utah State head coach Gary Andersen

On Thursday, Crystal Ball Run had the opportunity to catch up with Utah State head coach Gary Andersen in anticipation of his team’s game against Toledo Saturday in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Coach Andersen talked about his team and their matchup with the Rockets, the evolution of offense in college football, and finally, what his thoughts Northern Illinois as a BCS buster.

Crystal Ball Run: Coach, how you doing today?

Gary Andersen: I’m doing well, thank you.

CBR: Coach, you’re getting ready for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a game you’re very familiar with having played there last year, but I have to start with the season that you had this year, going 10-2, 6-0 in your final season in the WAC, with two tough early losses to Wisconsin and BYU.

But given the way last year went, with so many close calls going against your club, talk about how all that actually brings your team together and how you built off those losses this season.

GA: I think that any good team is in close football games, so I think that it’s very rare when you get to 10 wins without a couple hard-fought victories, and even at 10-2, you’re probably going to have a couple hard-fought defeats.

This team definitely grew from that; when they came back on the practice field after the BYU game there was something different about them. Their mindset had always been good, but something was different. It wasn’t anything a coach said, it wasn’t anything a player said, but they had a little bit of a different demeanor and different look in their eyes for what direction they were headed.

You’ve got to go through the tough losses, and I think there’s something to be said about gutting out a win and expecting a win. Expecting to win doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does sure improve your chances.

CBR: Given the way the bowl game ended last year (Utah State lost in the final seconds against Ohio), it seems to me like that was an added motivation headed into this year. How tough was that loss, and how much experience can you draw on that as you get ready for the game this weekend?

GA: Well it’s tough to go to a bowl game and lose. They play these bowl games to crown a champion and give out a trophy that goes with it. It’s one game but it is for a championship and is important, and I think losing last year the kids missed an opportunity. It hurt them, and hurt us as coaches because we didn’t get them well enough prepared. Our goal is to be a consistent, winning football team and it’s hard when you lose one of them.

But the expectation level has risen and is rising as a program without question.

CBR: Let’s talk about this year’s team, and specifically the defense. It seemed like every time I was watching them they came up with big plays, and they’re especially tough in the front-seven.

Specifically I’m looking at the linebackers, and you guys have three tremendous linebackers this season.

GA: Yeah, we absolutely do.

You start in the middle with Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil, two walk-ons from the state of Utah, who both found their way on scholarship deservingly. They’re first and second team All-Conference players in many publications and that honor is well-deserved in my opinion.

Then there’s Kyler Fackrell- who, in my opinion- is a freshman All-American as a defensive player. I don’t know how he couldn’t be or wouldn’t be, given what he’s done at the outside linebacker as a redshirt freshman. Then Bojay Filimoeat is the other young man who has a chance to go on and play on Sunday’s.

Those four kids are really gifted, and they’re lucky and when they need someone to spell them Tavaris McMillan does an excellent job for us. So it all starts with those kids right there, they’re the heart and soul of what we do.

CBR: And you yourself you’re more of a defensive-minded coach. In this era in college football where we’re seeing 50 points, 60 points, 70 points a game in some cases, and you’re seeing these high-tempo offenses, what is it about defense that can’t be forgotten about in game planning and game preparation week-in and week-out?

GA: Well first of all, this group of kids, they practice very well. And they absorb the game-plan on Tuesday and Wednesday very well, Thursday they polish it up and Friday they play. So they’ve been able to take it all in very, very well, been able to take the meeting room stuff to the practice field, the practice field stuff to the game field which is a credit to them.

Also, No. 2, they’re incredible athletes. As a coach it doesn’t matter what you do, if you don’t have tremendous players you have no chance.

And thirdly I would say this defensive staff is a quality staff. Dave Aranda came here as a coordinator this last year and meshed well with Bill Bush and Kevin Klune (linebackers coach). Kendrick Shavers is our cornerbacks coach, Frank Maile coaches our defensive line and Spencer Toone does an incredible job as a graduate assistant coaching the outside linebackers for us.

It’s a whole process to get everything moving in one direction. It’s a credit to the coaches, and a credit to the kids because they go out there and get it done.

CBR: As a coach, when you look around the country and see all these high-scoring, I’ve got to ask: Does it bother you a little bit! Is there any chance we can get back to maybe a focus on defense, not only at Utah State, but around the country?

GA: Yeah, you know it goes in cycles. Football is a cyclical game. It starts with something, than people figure it out, then it goes to the no-huddle, then pace, then defenses spend the whole off-season trying to figure it out, then offenses do something else to counter it. That’s what coaches do.

But the ability to throw the ball, if you’ve got a very talented quarterback it’s difficult to keep points off the board. Especially if you have a quarterback that can hurt you with his arms, his legs and his mind. That’s what a lot of these teams have gone to; they’ve got a bunch of athletes at quarterback that are going to cause you problems.

So I think it will continually go back-and-forth in the world football. That’s just the way it seems to be.

CBR: Well let me talk to you about your quarterback. You have one of those guys who gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares in Chuckie Keeton. I think he’s been a tremendous story that hasn’t really gotten a whole lot of attention nationally, where last year he was playing well, and then his injury at Hawaii kind of ended his season right there. But to see him come back this season has been inspirational. Talk a little bit about that comeback.

GA: Yeah well Chuckie has done an incredible job as a true sophomore. He’s incredibly talented, is an incredible leader and as I said earlier is someone who can beat you with his arms, his legs and his mind. He does a tremendous job with that and only continues to do that all year long. I think he’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the country coming into next year, and that’s what we believe at Utah State and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure “Chuckie Keeton” is a household name. If you’re a fan of college football, you need to know who Chuckie Keeton is, because I think he’s going to be even better next year too.

But off the field he’s a special young man and is just as impressive in his ability to lead as a true sophomore. The way he wraps his arms around younger guys and makes sure they’re headed in the right direction.

He gets it done in all areas.

CBR: One of the guys who is also on the offense people should be paying attention to this weekend is running back Kerwynn Williams, who is both your leading rusher and receiver. Share a little bit about his importance to the offense this weekend.

GA: Kerwynn is exactly what you said: He can hurt you when he runs the ball, he has big-play potential, is a physical back, is able to get the tough yards and he is tough to bring down with the first tackle. He’s also vicious weapon, not just out of the backfield, but in the screen game and catching the ball.

He’s another young man that does more for us off the field then on it, with the way he carries himself, with his leadership ability. He was in our first signing class here and has always been unselfish. At times he’s had to sit back and wait his turn. He never redshirted when it would’ve been easy to come in and say ‘Coach, I need my year,’ but he never had that opportunity.

So he’s exactly what college football is supposed to be about, and exactly the kind of player we want in our football program: He’s a tough-minded football player, but somebody who wants to succeed socially and academically first.

CBR: So this weekend you’re going to take on Toledo, a team that is very dynamic on offense, but even more so on defense. When looking at the defense what do you see? I’m sure you’ll notice Dan Molls who was the nation’s leading tackler, but this secondary is tough too. What have you noticed about Toledo in preparation for this game?

GA: They’ve got the ability to throw pressure at you in every different situation, they do a great job of keeping you off-balance. That’s a credit to their coaches and their players for the ability to handle the schemes and make them work.

The other thing is that they find the ball-carrier and tackle well. Obviously they enjoy the game of football and that’s very obvious from watching them and with the way they carry themselves as well.

CBR: And on the other side of the ball, what about the offense? They’ve got a dangerous quarterback back in Terrance Owens, a solid running back in David Fluellen and a great wide receiver in Bernard Reedy. Anything you’re looking to focus on this weekend as you get ready to take on Toledo?

GA: Well, they’re balanced. They run the ball physically, their offensive line is going to get on you and knock you around, and they’ve got an incredibly talented back whose numbers speak for themselves. Both quarterbacks are very dynamic, both can make plays when the protection breaks and make big plays on any given down.

CBR: Like we said earlier, you went 6-0 in the WAC, which is now in its final year as a football conference. You’re going to be playing one of the final games in the history of the conference this weekend, and when you look back on the WAC and everything about it, what do you think you’re going to take away from it and remember?

GA: One of the biggest things is me coming here four years ago, walking in and having the opportunity to be around terrific coaches. I feel like the old guy in the conference now after having been here four years, but it was always about the coaches.

One guy that comes to mind for me is Pat Hill at Fresno State, and the way he stayed at that program and built that program. But there are a number of other coaches too that I’ve seen in this conference and that I’ve learned from. Heck, look at what Chris Petersen did at Boise State. That’s a program we want to model ourselves after with the successes they’ve had and the direction they’ve moved their program in over the years.

CBR: Finally, toward the end of the season you guys beat Louisiana Tech, which a lot of people said kind of knocked Louisiana Tech out of the BCS picture. At the same time, it also opened the door for Northern Illinois to get into the BCS picture as well.

Now you were on the Utah staff that went to the Sugar Bowl back during the 2008 season as well as in 2004 as well. So if you could give any advice to a program like Northern Illinois headed into that BCS buster role, what would it be?

GA: Those kids are going to go in there, expect themselves to play at a high level and they’ll expect to win.

I don’t think they need any advice from me, but I have had the opportunity to watch them on film and they’re an excellent football team. I’m sure they already understand that the difference between good football teams is small; it’s a play here and a play there. And they’re going to go in there and represent us all.

But like I said, I don’t think they need any advice from me, I know they’re going to play very well.

CBR: Coach, appreciate your time and best of luck during bowl season.

GA: Thanks!!

Be sure to follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.