There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that head coach Gary Andersen has come in and single-handedly resurrected the hopes of an entire university, a town and D-1 college football between Salt Lake City and Boise.
There is also no complaint about the way Utah State has gone about its business, being about one big play short of upsetting Oklahoma at Oklahoma (a task neither Florida State nor Air Force, teams that beat BYU, could accomplish). It also throttled FCS school Idaho State in a game it should win.
Both games sent a clear message to everyone in the West that Utah State was here to stay and that Andersen–after the great work he accomplished as Utah’s D-coordinator in the Utes’ BCS-busting heyday–was onto something.
But when the chips were down on the table, so to speak, and fans flocked into Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium on Saturday night, they watched a school–that had so much going for it–endure a beating, or rather, a rude welcome to big-time college football in a 41-24 loss to Fresno State.
Poor play on special teams and defensive miscues forced the Ags into poor field position all evening and gave the Bulldogs carte blanche into the Ags’ second level and ultimately, the end zone at times when it mattered most.
It all proved that on this night, the Aggies–who by all accounts have been impressive–are hungry for something new, though they aren’t quite ready for the BCS.
Fresno State, long a football factory and bowl-worthy–though not in the same echelon as Boise State–came into Logan and administered a good, ‘ol fashioned butt whuppin’ with two staples of Bulldog football: fast, talented athletes and a balanced offense.
An Aggie 24-17 lead midway through the third quarter quickly evaporated once the Bulldogs started using those athletes and its system, a byproduct of head coach Pat Hill, a Ron McBride disciple.
The Bulldogs’ workhorse running back, sophomore A.J. Ellis (165 yards on a monster 29 carries) got into the second level time and again.
It forced Aggie linebacker Bobby Wagner to post a career-high 17 tackles, the kind of stat that makes that player wanna put an asterisk next to it and then punch it with his fist.
The Bulldogs used their superior team speed and size and simply rammed the ball up the gut, with a few cuts and jogs to the outside for good measure and kept the potent Aggie offense off the field.
Another issue: Aggie quarterback Diondre Borel threw for a paltry 106 yards on 23 pass attempts–though he did have 89 yards on the ground–and that will not keep any offense on the field, especially when you complete only 11 passes.
One bright spot was Utah State’s running game. 235 yards is a positive for any team, no matter the outcome.
The killer on the game was the field position, however. The last three Fresno State scoring drives that resulted in the Bulldogs’ final 17 points were from the USU 24-yard line, the USU 46 and the Fresno 49.
Bottom line, the loss spoiled what could have been a statement game for Utah State, the type of win that elevates a program, especially when it would have been over a school that is–unless the WAC wins its pending court battle–leaving for the Mountain West Conference after this season.
While talk of the Aggies possibly joining the MWC died–something that Fresno, Nevada and BSU will do–it leaves the notion to some that the Aggies aren’t good enough after seeing what happened on a Saturday evening in September 2010.
On the other hand, saying such is ludicrous since it‘s only one game in a long season, but a 17-point loss does lend credence to the fact that Andersen and Co. are still a work in progress.
Ask Boise State how many coaches and how long it took before anyone east of the Mississippi took them seriously. Ironically enough, the Oklahoma Sooners that the Aggies nearly upended was the very school that set the Broncos on its way to being a national power.
And that says something positive about any program whether or not your time’s on the horizon, though it’s just a few hundred miles from Boise.
So while Oklahoma was a start, it merely was the beginning of a long road for the Utah State Aggies to hoe, pardon the agricultural reference.
But like the soil upon which the Aggies tread, its people are hearty souls, ones who won’t break, on a field where poor farm boys like Rulon Jones and, fittingly, the late Merlin Olsen plied their trade and made the school famous.
It will be exciting to see what Andersen can do for this program in tiny Logan, a farm community that is fiercely proud of its team, its culture and the people who made it great.
He gets his next opportunity next week at San Diego State, another rising power in the MWC with a young, hungry coach who wants to prove to his team that all the hard work will pay off soon enough.