Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY A cloud seemed to pass over Utah State coach Matt Wells eyes, changing them from cornflower to a dark Aggie blue. He had been asked whether instate games such as Thursdays USU-Utah affair are overrated.
No, he said in a clipped cadence. This means a whole lot to this program. But Im not going to say it means more than a Mountain West Conference game. It wont be a make or break game for this program.
Good news for Aggie fans, because thats pretty much what happened to Utah in last years 27-20 loss to USU. It didnt break the program, but it diverted it.
The loss would have been just a flesh wound if the Utes had gone on to succeed in Pac-12 play, but they didnt. They struggled with quarterback problems until finishing their first non-bowl season in a decade. The death knell sounded when back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona put them in losing territory for good.
But the trouble had started in Logan with a blocked punt and a tackle that sent quarterback Jordan Wynn into retirement. It continued with a tying Utah touchdown that was called back on a penalty.
The season was new, but already the Utes had been waylaid by a team that hadnt defeated them in 15 years.
I think in a way it may have set the tone for a lot of things, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
It most definitely did, Ute receiver Dres Anderson said. That loss last year was a negative for the team, for sure. It went down from there. But weve got to make sure that doesnt happen this year.
Trends are a tricky thing. While one game doesnt always make a season, other times it does. Losing to USU stripped away any illusions that the Utes could get by with unstable/untested quarterbacks and an inexperienced offensive coordinator. Though they returned the next week to beat BYU, it took two failed Cougar field goals to salvage the win. Once Pac-12 play began, the course was set. Losses to Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Oregon State made it official.
The season was a dud.
Falling to the Aggies was far from the biggest upset in school history. That was the best team USU ever produced. Besides, a 1980 season-opening loss to Boise State then still a Big Sky team was a much harsher shock. Utah finished 5-5-1 that year. A 1993 loss to Idaho, after a WAC-opening loss to Wyoming, triggered a ho-hum 7-6 season.
In the Ron McBride era, a single loss often led to several in succession.
Once the pattern was set, it played out.
I mean, last year was definitely a disappointing loss, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said on Monday. I think we moved on from it and tried to play as well as we could, but this Thursday weve definitely got to try to make a statement.
Actually, the Utes never did move on. Had they not defeated BYU, they would have had a six-game losing streak the longest since McBrides final season (2002).
Considering Utah plays five preseason top-25 teams, this years game against USU could set a precedent, too. Weber State on Sept. 7 shouldnt be a worry for the Utes, but then come games against Oregon State, BYU, UCLA and Stanford all potential losses.
When theyre in the moment, coaches deny a single game can make or break a season. But later theyll admit when a sea change occurs. It can work the other way, too. Utahs 2011 win over Oregon State got the Utes back into contention for a bowl game. A 2008 win at Michigan set up an undefeated Sugar Bowl year. A season-opening win over Texas A&M launched a 12-0 run in 2004.
Wells is right one non-conference game doesnt destroy a program. But it can sidetrack seasons.
Motivational speakers claim that altering habits can change a persons direction. As the Utes can attest, thats even true when the change is for the worse.
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