To outsiders, when football and Utah are used in the same sentence, nearly everyone’s reaction is Urban Meyer’s BCS run with Alex Smith and the Utes or an attempt to explain BYU’s big money deal with ESPN. Overshadowed by the University of Utah’s move to the PAC-12 and BYU’s faithful following, few are aware of the movement occurring 85 miles to the north; a movement similar to that of one accomplished by Chris Peterson on an infamous blue turf. 85 miles north of Salt Lake City, a tiny university is vying to become the most dominant football program in the state of Utah. And they are a lot closer to accomplishing that than you might think.
Logan, Utah is home to about 50,000 people, with a large percentage attending Utah State University. Nestled between the Wasatch and Bear River Mountains, Logan is a true college town known for its harsh winters, breathtaking scenery and proud alumnus. While the football team struggled, Logan watched as their Aggies earned several WAC titles and multiple trips to the NCAA tournament under head coach Stew Morrill. Logan was a basketball town, a miniature version of Chapel Hill. But in 2009 head football coach Gary Andersen arrived, and few would foresee the transformation both Utah State and Logan were about to undergo.
Gary Andersen’s most notable job before coaching the Aggies was the defensive coordinator on the University of Utah’s 2008 Sugar Bowl team. You remember the team that drubbed the Alabama Crimson Tide. When Andersen arrived in Logan, he brought with him the Utes’ spread offense and a big chip on his shoulder, the two ingredients Utah State football needed most.
Andersen spent his first two seasons revamping the Utah State football program. Garnering support from the student body, contributing alumni, and the town, Andersen quickly created buzz around a football program that had been dormant for a decade. Selling recruits on Logan’s small town atmosphere and getting the program heading in the right direction, Andersen was winning, even if it wasn’t reflected in the standings. Quietly, the Ags were rising.
Then in 2011, he led the Aggies to their first Bowl Game appearance since 1997. Utah State football was relevant.
Powered by the spread offense, the undersized Aggies began competing by utilizing space. Add to the mix NFL running back Robert Turbin, Doak Walker Award candidate Joe Hill, and Chuckie Keeton, referred to as just Chuckie by the student body, the Aggie offense was able to put up numbers. A defense that was also undersized featured NFL linebacker Bobby Wagner, adopted the 3-4, utilized quickness off the outside and creative zone-blitz schemes to take away opponents’ matchup advantages.
Finally, little Utah State, with a student enrollment of under 30,000, had learned who to recruit, how to recruit them, and most importantly how to compete. All of the sudden, Logan was a place shunned talented recruits with chips on their shoulders wanted to be.
In 2012, the Aggies put everything together and gained early momentum by knocking off in-state powerhouse Utah in overtime; their first victory over the U of U in thirteen consecutive tries. The next week they went into Madison, Wisconsin and were a missed field goal away from an upset near the likes of Appalachian State over Michigan. A two-point loss that even Andersen, now the coach of those Wisconsin Badgers admits the Aggies should’ve won. They would fall by three to BYU on ESPN, acquire a little national attention and never lose again. A season of 11 wins, a WAC Championship, and a 41-15 backyard beat down of Boise State at the Potato Bowl. Utah State and Gary Andersen had arrived.
Andersen’s short turnaround at Utah State would land him a job in the Big Ten at Wisconsin. But before he left, he had accomplished so much in such a short time. Utah State was no longer a speed bump on opponent’s schedules or just a basketball school, and the city of Logan had been converted to a football town. There was now an expectation of winning from a program that hadn’t posted a double digit win season in their history.
Right now, the 2013 season is being led by first year head coach Matt Wells, who has assumed the role Andersen vacated. With the dynamic talented Keeton leading the offense and coming off a 2012 season with over 3,300 yards and 27 touchdowns, the Aggies expect big things. Aggie fans have even created a #Chuckie4Heisman campaign across Twitter. Now members of the Mountain West Conference, the Aggies’ inaugural season expectations include a Mountain West Conference Championship and a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they would likely have a rematch with BYU.
Early this season the Aggies fell to the Utes in Salt Lake City in heartbreaking fashion. A trip out to the Coliseum against fading USC was even more disappointing. A game played deep in their own territory, the Ags were unable to get anything going offensively and fell by three. A look at the schedule and a bout with in-state rival BYU this weekend and Boise State in town next weekend, the Ags have more opportunities to prove themselves and bring home their first Mountain West title.
Utah State football has come a long way since 2009. Many out west believe that even with Gary Andersen’s departure the program has risen far enough to remain relevant for many years to come. Despite an inability thus far to win a “big game”, which they will win sooner than later, the Aggies have carved out a niche for themselves in the college football landscape.
A favorite to win the Mountain West this year, Utah State continues to surprise many. And if you head up Interstate 84 nearly 300 miles to the northwest, you’ll find blue turf; blue turf that started the rise of non-BCS, mid-majors in the football world. Utah State is where Boise State was ten years ago.
Right now all arrows are pointing up for Utah State. The Aggies are becoming more than just a good story; they are becoming a respected program. And despite being sheltered among mountains and secluded in the Cache Valley, Utah State is pushing its way onto the Utah football scene. And more than just their rivals to the south have noticed.