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Utah State football: Friday's game against BYU is a big deal for Utah State connections

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 8:05 p.m. MDT

Utah State fans prepare for BYU's visit to Romney Stadium in 2008. The Cougars are back Friday.    (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah State fans prepare for BYU's visit to Romney Stadium in 2008. The Cougars are back Friday. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

LOGAN — When two teams have combined for just two victories a month into the season, it would be easy to say that the game would not mean much. For all associated with the Utah State Aggies, however, any game against rival BYU is a big game.

"It's a huge game," freshman Utah State student Sean McKay said. "Aside from Boise State it is the biggest game on our schedule, and easily the biggest home game of the season."

"If we can beat BYU, it shows that our program is improving and can contend in the state."

On the basketball court during the winter months, the two schools are peers, as Stew Morrill has built the Utah State program to as high a level as any in the state.

On the gridiron in the fall, however, Utah State has traditionally been the third wheel of Utah collegiate football.

In the '60s, the Merlin Olsen-led Aggies were the team to beat in Utah, but along the way, they got lost in the shuffle. Utah and BYU started up the WAC, and Utah State was left behind, destined to suffer through lean years of independence in football.

Under Gary Andersen, however, the tide seems to be turning. The Aggies are starting to go head-to-head with the instate rivals for recruits, like freshman defensive end Jason Fanaika.

For a Pleasant Grove native like Fanaika, getting the chance to play against BYU takes on special meaning.

"Being from Utah County, all that is talked about and all you see around there is BYU," Fanaika said. "It's a big game for me because I have friends on their team and a bunch of family coming to watch the game. It's a big game, and I'm excited to play. I didn't grow up wanting to go there, but I didn't hate them, either. Now that I am here at Utah State, it's a big deal for me now, and I'm going to leave my heart out there."

The excitement for an in-state rivalry game is also shared by other in-state recruits, such as Jordan High graduate Tyler Larsen.

"I would always see BYU play growing up, and I would always think, 'Man, I want to play them or for them.' In this case, I get to play against them, and that's even better for me," the freshman center Larsen said. "It's a big game. It's been a long time since Utah State would dominate and win these games."

Larsen had just celebrated his second birthday when the Aggies last beat the Cougars in a wild 58-56 shootout in Logan in 1993.

Although the coaching staff downplays the importance of the rivalry, they still agree it is an important game.

"It is a home game, it is a big game, it doesn't matter who the opponent is, all we really care about is the Aggies," defensive coordinator Bill Busch said Monday.

For fans of Utah State, it's a chance to show that their school is good enough to play with the other schools in the state.

"A win would be big," sophomore Jake Christofferson said about the game. "It would show that we belong with the big boys in the state. It would be a great thing for us."

With the rivalry with University of Utah on hold for a few seasons (the Utes play Notre Dame while USU lightens up their schedule), the BYU game becomes the Aggies' only chance to prove they belong.

After working with BYU to bring the Cougars to the WAC in nonfootball sports this summer, the Aggies got stuck holding the bag as Fresno State and Nevada bolted to the Mountain West Conference and BYU turned to the West Coast Conference.

The hope for Aggie fans is that, as the football program improves, so will the chances to move up the collegiate ranks when the next cycle of realignment comes.

More important than all of that, however, is the chance to win bragging rights over friends and family from across the state.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company