BOISE, Idaho — Running back Robert Turbin knows exactly when and how the season turned for Utah State.
It was early November, the week before a road trip to Hawaii. The Aggies were 2-5, had lost a heartbreaker in the opener to defending national champion Auburn, were fresh off two straight defeats and seemingly on the verge of yet another disappointing season.
That's when Turbin and a handful of other Aggie veterans decided to take matters into their own hands.
"We had a players-only meeting that week," said Turbin, a junior and Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
"What happened was for the first time really since I've been at Utah State, players were kind of calling out each other. We decided during that meeting to really take accountability for our own actions, for everything that we were doing on and off the field," Turbin said.
The collective gut check worked.
Despite falling behind 28-7 early at Hawaii, the Aggies rallied for a 35-31 win, and Turbin and his teammates haven't lost since. The Aggies compiled a 7-5 record, finished second in the WAC and earned the right to play Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — the school's first bowl appearance since 1997.
"It's been a great feeling ever since," said Turbin. "We really turned it around and turned it into success. So this is just a very special moment for us."
For Ohio, a victory Saturday would also be special.
In five trips to the postseason, the Bobcats (9-4) have never managed to come out on top in a bowl game. Ohio was blown out by Troy last year in the New Orleans Bowl and beaten by Southern Mississippi 21-17 in the 2009 Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl.
The Bobcats also have a chance to become the first team in school history to win 10 games in a season, a goal established by the team back in the early days of fall camp.
"I do know that 10 is a magic number for the program," said coach Frank Solich, who has compiled a 49-40 record in seven seasons in Athens, Ohio. "We wanted to break down barriers this season. We wanted to be a team that doesn't just get to bowl games, we want to win bowl games. We decided at the beginning of the year we wanted to zero in on some of the things nobody has been able to do at Ohio."
So there is plenty at stake for the Aggies and Bobcats in a game that helps kick off college football's bowl season.
For Utah State, it may be hard to ignore the significance the team meeting in November had on the second-half resurgence. But it would also be hard to overlook the importance of Turbin and the Aggie rushing attack.
Turbin finished the regular season with 1,416 yards and 19 touchdowns on 229 carries. He also had 16 catches for 164 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 138 points on the season, seventh most all-time in the WAC.
But Turbin isn't doing it alone. Tailback Michael Smith is averaging 59 yards rushing per game and Kerwynn Williams is chipping in another 40 yards on the ground per game. As a team, Utah State is averaging 277 yards rushing per game, tops in the WAC and sixth best nationally.
"It's going to be a challenge," said Ohio linebacker Noah Keller. "But we've held five teams this year to under 100 yards rushing. Stopping the run is one of the strengths of our defense. If we can make a team more one dimensional, then we'll do that."
The Bobcats also managed to turn their season around after a disappointing start. By mid-October, the Bobcats were 3-4 and had lost two straight to Buffalo and Ball State.
But the combination of a tougher defense and the play and keen decision-making of sophomore quarterback Tyler Tettleton fueled a five-game winning streak to close out the season.
Tettleton led an offense that put up an average of 31 points per game. Ohio finished atop the Mid-American Conference East Division and lost to Northern Illinois 23-20 in the conference title game on Dec. 2. The Bobcats led early 20-0, but couldn't hold on as the Huskies rallied and scored 23 unanswered points to spoil Ohio's hopes of winning its first title since 1968.Comment on this story
Tettleton threw for 3,066 yards and 26 touchdowns, completing 63.6 percent of his throws with 10 interceptions. But his 10th pick may have been one of the most costly of the season. With 8:49 left to go, Tettleton misfired deep in NIU territory and set the stage for the comeback.
One of the primary messages for the team heading into the bowl game is the importance of protecting the ball, especially in big games.
"Bowl games are big ones for turnovers," Solich said. "You may be prone to turn it over, especially early, until you can get into a rhythm."