Brad Rock: Aggies still don't quite know how to finish games

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 10:46 a.m. MDT


Maybe his face was scorched from a week of squinting into the afternoon sun. More likely the flush on Utah State coach Gary Andersen's face was from another heart-seizing finish, another soul-searching loss.

Another reminder the Aggies still don't know what it's like to expect to win.

Friday night at Edwards Stadium, BYU scored with 11 seconds remaining to seize a 27-24 win. That makes it three such losses this season alone for USU. You can talk about disappointment, you can muse about pain, but few coaches know those terms better than Andersen.

"This is as hard a stretch as I've ever been through as a position coach, as player, a head coach. It's very difficult," Andersen said. "But we are what we are, it is is what it is, and we continue, move on and fight."

What it is, of course, is a team that has learned how to fight but not how to win. A team has a ton of spirit but only a modicum of know-how. You have to understand — it's been 35 years. You don't change the culture overnight. So Andersen, in his third season in Logan, pushes on.

"I'm proud of these kids. I think they get better every week," he said. "I truly believe that. I think their minds are right and their minds will stay right."

If USU badly wants to win, that wasn't always the case. Go down the list. Not Chris Pella, not Chuck Shelton, not Charlie Weatherbie, not Dave Arslanian, not Mick Dennehy, not Brent Guy and not even John L. Smith could get their teams higher than an occasional winning season.

Andersen hasn't improved on that yet. He is 9-19 in his two-plus years in Logan. Utah State lost at Auburn when a Tiger onside kick in the final moments ruined their day. They lost against Colorado State when a fumbled punt led to a double-overtime loss.

But you'd have to be awfully jaded not to figure there is something good happening. The Aggies came 11 seconds from beating BYU back-to-back for the first time since 1973-74. For the Aggies, the wait has been long and sometimes pointless. Four wins in the last 31 games against BYU isn't exactly convincing. Four! An average Saturday morning touch football team might win that many. In fact, it has never been proven that's not who the Aggies were sending for a lot of those years.

Then came last year's 31-16 win, in no way an accident. It was an old-fashioned beatdown. The Aggies led 31-3 before losing interest.

Take THAT for stealing their school colors.

This year fans on both sides of the aisle suspected the Aggies could win. Last season's victory was an utter surprise. But considering BYU came into Friday's game ranked 109th in scoring offense and 116th in rushing, it was a genuine winner-in-doubt proposal. USU seemed to be creeping ever-closer to … something. Respectability, for sure. But status as a major football program? With all due respect to the aforementioned Aggie greats, that ship has sailed.

On the game's first play from scrimmage, USU's Robert Turbin huffed 80 yards for a touchdown. BYU's offense was erratic, as Jake Heaps continued to act like anyone's teenager: great potential, but enigmatic as all outdoors. The Cougars didn't really get moving until they subbed in ex-Aggie Riley Nelson, who executed the win. On the winning play, his pass was tipped, but ended up in the hands of Marcus Mathews for a touchdown anyway.

The famous BYU bounce had prevailed again.

That's not to say it was luck. Nelson simply claimed the win. At the same time, USU got nervous.

"Maybe they pressed too hard," Andersen said.

So here the Aggies are again, close but no celebration. The three close losses this year. A seven-point loss to Oklahoma last year. An eight-point loss to Texas A&M in 2009. Yet Andersen said he sees progress.

"I don't know what I'd give to be able to have that magic recipe and put these kids in that position (of winning), because it's hard to watch," Andersen said. "It's hard to see those faces in that locker room again and again and again."

For all the improvements, the past is still with them.

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