Nationals

Utah State D gears up for La Tech's potent offense

Utah State D gears up for La Tech's potent offense

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Gary Andersen is a great motivator, having rebuilt Utah State's program into one that is bowl-eligible for the second straight season.

On Saturday, the Aggies defense faces its biggest challenge - slowing down a high-powered Louisiana Tech team that has scored at least 50 points in eight of its last 10 games.

``It's a well-oiled machine,'' Andersen said of the 19th-ranked Bulldogs and their top-rated offense.

On the line in Ruston, La., will likely be the Western Athletic Conference title as Utah State (8-2) and Louisiana Tech (9-1) are both 4-0 in league play.

There are plenty of other numbers to digest, starting with Utah State's 12th-rated defense. It is ranked in the top 20 nationally in five different categories, including fifth against the run (94.6 yards) and sixth in points allowed per game (13.5).

``They are just not giving up many points and yards,'' Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes said. ``They have just been a dominant team defensively. That has allowed them to pull away early in ball games.''

Utah State has outscored its opponents 103-6 in the first quarter. The Aggies and Penn State are the only teams that have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown this season.

The Aggies also have won their last four by an average margin of 29.5 points en route to their best start since 1974. Their two losses are by five points combined, 16-14 at Wisconsin and 6-3 at Brigham Young. And one of their biggest wins was over Andersen's alma mater, Utah, which his Aggies shocked 27-20 in overtime in Week 2.

None of those opponents had the potency of Louisiana Tech. None had a quarterback with stats like Colby Cameron, who on Saturday against Texas State broke the NCAA record for most consecutive career pass attempts without an interception. His streak is still alive at 419.

Utah State counters with a stingy red-zone defense, allowing opponents to come away with just 10 touchdowns in 29 trips. Senior cornerback Will Davis is one playmaker, with interceptions in each of the last three games. Two weeks ago, he helped limit Texas State to 158 yards of total offense in a 38-7 win.

Give credit, too, to young linebackers Zach Vigil (nine tackles for loss, five sacks, a forced fumble and blocked kick) and Kyler Fackrell (two interceptions, seven QB hurries).

``They have a lot of leadership on the team. They do things the right way,'' Dykes said of a defense allowing its fewest points since 1963. ``They are in great position defensively play after play ... never out of place.''

Utah State has dominated despite losing its best defensive player from last year, Bobby Wagner, who became the highest-drafted Aggie (No. 47 by Seattle) since Rulon Jones went 42nd overall to the Denver Broncos in 1980.

It helped that Andersen brought on Dave Aranda to serve as defensive coordinator this year.

What doesn't help is hearing Dykes say Louisiana Tech hasn't played a complete game yet.

Both coaches predict a tough, hard-fought contest Saturday. There's no question is will be fast-paced, with the Aggies expected to have their hands full just trying to rotate in defensive players.

``I would like it if they would come out and they would get into a huddle, which they never do, and sit there and snap the ball with one second on the clock,'' said Andersen. ``Obviously, that's a dream world and that's not going to happen.''

Instead, Andersen said, it will be ``pedal to the metal'' for a quick-strike Louisiana Tech team that has 20 touchdown drives this season that have taken 60 seconds or less.

``If you watch the film, you can absolutely see when Louisiana Tech feels that they've got your tired ... and comes after you,'' Andersen said. ``With fatigue, you have got to be tougher-minded. We cannot let fatigue be a factor to us.''

What figures to be a factor is that the Bulldogs have a balanced attack with running back Kenneth Dixon now holding NCAA freshman records for most rushing TDs (24), total TDs (25) and points scored (150). The records were previously held by Marshall Faulk.

``Probably the biggest difference from years past is quite simply, they can run the ball effectively and they have shown they can do that game after game after game,'' Andersen said. ``It was much more one-dimensional the first two years we played them. It's a tremendous challenge for us.''

One plus for the Aggies: they have had extra time to prepare since they are coming off a bye.

``It's fun to be in a game that has this much (riding) on the outcome, this late in the year,'' Andersen said. ``Late November games are what football teams play for and fans want to be around.''

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Mike Rizzo on how the Nationals plan to approach the nearing trade deadline

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Mike Rizzo on how the Nationals plan to approach the nearing trade deadline

With the MLB trade deadline only two weeks away, Nationals' general manager Mike Rizzo expects the team to be more focused on acquiring players than trading away any - and that includes third baseman Anthony Rendon, whose contract expires at the end of season.

"Obviously, we’re always listening and we’re always talking to people," Rizzo said on The Sports Junkies Wednesday. "But I don’t anticipate moving Anthony Rendon, no."

Rendon's contract extension of $18.8 million going into the 2018 season will expire at the end of this season, and while Rizzo and the Nationals have made it clear they are actively working to re-sign him, a deal has yet to be made.

Rendon's agent Scott Boras told NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas during the All-Star Break that he and the [Nationals team owners] Lerners have "always worked out things -- usually."

“There are times that they make decisions and we make decisions, and I think they’ve been very good decisions for all parties involved," Boras added at the time. "When they sit down and look at where their franchise is going, that’s a direction they have to give us. Obviously, they have to make those decisions. Rendon is a superstar and that is a major decision in their franchise. I don’t ask. I just go and prepare for our meetings and we talk and kind of listen to what they tell us they want to do. It’s really in their corner as to how we go from there.”

Rizzo told the Junkies that the Nationals plan to keep Rendon, though acknowledged the calls for him from other teams do keep coming in.

‘’[An offer] would have to be something that wouldn’t make sense for us to turn down and probably wouldn’t make sense for them to acquire," Rizzo said on trading Rendon.

Rizzo said the Nationals' front office is prepared to add some players to the roster.

"We’ve been most recently in acquire mode, because, you know, we’ve had the chance to win the last eight seasons and I think we're in that mode again," Rizzo said.

Though, of course, he wouldn't actually rule out making any trades that send some players out of DC.

"We're an aggressive front office, we're an aggressive ownership group, and if there’s a deal to be made that would help us prepare for meaningful games in September and beyond, we’ve shown in the past that we’re capable of doing that and we're not afraid to make a trade," he said.

The Nationals take on the Orioles for game 2 of the Battle of the Beltways Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. 

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at one of the biggest questions on the team’s defense, can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role?

When the Caps acquired Jensen at the trade deadline and immediately re-signed him for four years, the implication was clear. Suddenly, Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit became expendable.

With the team expected to be hard up against the salary cap in the offseason, the salary would need to be moved. Sure enough, Niskanen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas.

Gudas is a good pick up for the third-pair, but this trade is a move that only makes sense if you have a top-four defenseman to replace Niskanen on the right. Gudas, Jensen and John Carlson’s are the team’s three right-handed shots. Carlson is obviously cemented on the top pairing and Gudas is headed to the third. That leaves Jensen as the only real option on the second pair. After seeing him struggle since coming to Washington at the trade deadline, it is fair to be a little worried.

Jensen showed last season that he can be a top-four defenseman in the NHL while with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a healthy scratch on opening night, but he made sure he was not scratched again by the Red Wings and averaged 20:48 of ice-time over 60 games before he was traded.

Sure, a lack of defensive depth helped, but Jensen’s play was what earned him that spot more than anything else and it is why Washington traded for him and re-signed him before he ever played a game for the Caps.

But when he got to Washington, Jensen started struggling. An in-season trade can often be difficult with players forced to adjust to a new team and new system. Jensen certainly will not be the last trade deadline acquisition to struggle to make that transition.

“I think there was a period of adjustment where coaches were asking him to play a different system in a different way than he’s played,” Brian MacLellan said at the team’s breakdown day. “The good games were really good, I thought. And the down games were him trying to figure out system stuff and individual stuff that they were wanting him to do on the ice.”

In Detroit, defensemen do not shift too much from side to side. The blueliners have their side and they skate straight up and down the ice. In Washington, however, defensemen are constantly switching sides during play and you are expected to cover whatever side you are on when the puck begins moving back down towards the defensive zone.

Jensen is a right-shot defenseman and was not at all comfortable playing on the left. That is not uncommon. There are a lot more left-shot defensemen than righties and often if you see a player playing his off-side, it is a lefty playing on the right. Righties just are not expected to play on the left all that often because there are fewer of them. For Jensen, even having to shift over to the left within a play proved difficult.

Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele used this to his advantage in a regular season game against Washington in which he turned Jensen inside-out.

When you watch closely, this play is less about the fancy stickwork of Foegele and more about a defenseman who does not look comfortable at all playing on the left.

It is important to clarify what we are talking about here. The Caps are not asking Jensen to be a left defenseman. That would not be a great situation and there would be no guarantee he would ever get to the point where he could be a top-four defenseman playing on his off-side. The team’s system simply allows for defensemen to cycle from side-to-side situationally. When the opposition transitions down the ice, you may not have the opportunity to switch back to your original side and are instead expected to defend that transition from whichever side you are on. This would largely apply to quick transitions. Adjusting to that is not at all impossible and Jensen’s ability to do so will be absolutely critical for the team’s success next season.

The Niskanen trade certainly looks like a shrewd move by MacLellan as it not only saved the team money, but also upgraded the bottom pair. The move only makes sense, however, if and only if it did not leave the team with a hole in the top-four. In that case, the team will have gotten worse defensively, not better.

With a full offseason and training camp to prepare, Jensen should look far more comfortable within the system. As last season’s camp with Detroit showed, he can be prone to slow starts, but we should know by Thanksgiving if Jensen is starting to feel at home with Washington or if the defense is in serious trouble.

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