Brad Rock: Utah State Aggies serve notice of another team in Utah
SALT LAKE CITY – We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to make this important public service announcement: There are actually three major college football teams in Utah, not two.
Sometimes it just takes a little (or possibly a gigantic) reminder.
Locked into a conference teetering on the brink, lodged in the northern reaches of the state, beset by small budget issues, Utah State has been overshadowed the past year – OK, the past three decades -- by Utah and BYU.
But Saturday afternoon the Aggies struck a blow for the little guys by nearly upsetting defending national champion Auburn on its home field. Two Auburn touchdowns in the final 3 ½ minutes turned a 10-point upset special into a 42-38 Tiger win.
It's hard to know how Utah State will do in the WAC this year, but it's safe to say it got the rest of the conference's attention. With Boise State moving to the Mountain West, the race should be infinitely more suspenseful. Since USU was picked to finish fifth in the conference coaches' poll, you have to ask: Don't those coaches watch game film?
Or did USU's performance have something to do with those 5-Hour Energy shots commercials that ran during the timeouts?
Whatever it was, the Aggies could have used another few minutes of vigor.
It should be noted here that USU didn't ever lie down. The Aggies played their ever-loving agricultural college hooves off. But what happened on Saturday is what often happens when small teams play big ones. As the game progresses, the team with less depth and size gets tired. So do the opponents, but they have more where that came from.
So the smaller team does the best it can for as long as it can. Unfortunately for USU, this time it was for 56 ½ of the required 60 minutes. Auburn pulled off a nifty onside kick and scored twice late to return from the dead.
This was as close to true glory as it has been in several decades for the Aggies. A win would have been considered among the biggest upsets in college football history. Most experts list games like USC over Notre Dame in 1964, Cal over Stanford in 1986 or Kansas State over Oklahoma in 2003 among the biggest upsets of all time. In 2007, tiny Appalachian State beat mighty Michigan.
But App-State was on its way to its third straight FCS (formerly I-AA) national championship and Michigan was on the way to a merely decent 9-4 season, after which it fired the coach.
This time it was USU playing the ant among elephants. It isn't an FCS team, but only a step or two away. Auburn was ranked No. 23 going to Saturday's contest, not a championship caliber team but a promising one nonetheless.
USU has only one win in its history against a ranked team, a 1991 decision over 25th-ranked Fresno State. It has now lost 30 straight games to ranked teams and is 1-54 overall.
The Big Blue has been to only six bowl games in its history, and mostly it's been a tour of the low end of the spectrum: Raisin, Grape, Sun, Gotham, Humanitarian and one appearance at the Las Vegas Bowl.
Hence, regular season games against big conference schools are often the most publicity the Aggies get.
After the game, USU players could be seen in various states of dejection. Disheartening as it was, the game was a big step in third-year coach Gary Andersen's plan. The Aggies out-gained Auburn 448 to 364 yards. Most significantly, they held the run-first Tigers to just 78 yards rushing. USU also dominated in possession time, holding the ball for 15 more minutes.
Freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton completed an impressive 21 of his 30 passes for 213 yards.
This is a fifth-place team in a small league?
I don't think so.
Perhaps teams should start paying attention to the Aggies. Last season they lost by just a touchdown at Oklahoma. In 2009 they came within eight of Texas A&M. USU has just an 8-17 overall record in Andersen's era. But there is hope. This year, with Boise State gone to the Mountain West, you never know. Hawaii, Fresno State, Nevada and Louisiana Tech are picked to finish ahead of the Aggies.
Then again, so was Auburn, and it's still got the shakes.
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