Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s eerily like 1997 for the Utah football team as it prepares to meet longtime rival Utah State at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday night.
The Utes and Aggies are playing a late August game in Salt Lake the year after an Aggie upset in Logan that broke a long drought against the Utes, just like 16 years ago.
The Utes are just hoping the outcome isn’t similar to that late August night in 1997.
In that game, the Aggies jumped on the Utes early, taking a 14-0 halftime lead, watched Utah tie it in the third quarter, only to score again and hold off the Utes for a 21-14 victory. That gave the Aggies back-to-back wins over the Utes for the first time in 21 years.
Back in ’97, the Utes were still seething about the loss the previous year when the Aggies had won 20-17 in Logan in the game referred to as “Groin-gate” when the Aggies were accused of grabbing Ute star running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala several times in the groin during pileups. Some in the media referred to the Aggies as “the Grabbies” after that game.
Despite what happened, the Utes tried to downplay the loss the year before like it was an anomaly and to a certain extent they’ve done the same thing this year. But the fact that the Aggies went on to have an outstanding 11-2 season after defeating the Utes has kept the Utes’ attention. It’s also brought the revenge factor more into focus.
“We don’t like to lose in-state games,” said Ute senior captain Trevor Reilly. “We haven’t lost to BYU in awhile, but losing to Utah State stings just as bad. I want to make it right. I feel we owe those guys and they’re coming into our place now and hopefully we can play better. I use it more as a chip on my shoulder. It doesn’t feel good to lose like that.”
Reilly pointed out that the loss to the Aggies essentially kept the Utes out of a bowl game since they came up a game short with a 5-7 record. Another Ute captain, defensive lineman Tenny Palepoi, said the loss to Utah State affected Utah’s whole season.
“It’s been weighing on us a lot, and that loss depicted the rest of our season,” he said. “We didn’t expect to lose to them, and when they came out and punched us in the mouth, it kind of caught us off-guard.”
Palepoi says the Utes’ mentality has changed this year and said they won’t be surprised by anyone.
“We’re going into this season with an underdog mentality not to overlook anyone,” he said. “We’re ready this year. We just need to play consistent on both sides of the ball.”
The Utes are also hoping that their recent problems on offense aren’t a factor this week, like they were in 1997. In that game, despite having experienced running backs in Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Juan Johnson, the Ute offense managed a measly 284 yards of total offense against the Ags.
This year, the Utes are playing a sophomore quarterback, Travis Wilson, with a handful of starts under his belt and new running backs, although they do have an experienced offensive line. Coach Kyle Whittingham pointed out that the Utes’ offense must be much better than last year when it converted on just 2 of 17 third-down situations.
Whittingham says the Utes “prepare the same way they do every week,” but did say this week’s game is a little more special because of who it is and because of what happened last year.
“We talk about in-state games being a priority for us,” he said. As for last year's loss, he added, “You use anything you can for motivation.”
After the 1997 loss, Utah dominated the series with Utah State, winning 12 straight times from 1998 to 2009, by an average score of 36-12. Then came the two-year hiatus before last year’s Aggie upset in Logan by a 27-20 score in overtime. So it's been four years since the Utes have beaten the Aggies.
“Last year’s game was a huge disappointment for us and we’ve got to get that corrected,” said Whittingham.
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