PROVO — It's a rivalry again.
Even though BYU has won 27 of the last 31 meetings with Utah State — and hasn't lost to the Aggies in Provo since 1978 — the last couple of games between the two programs have changed the dynamics of the longtime in-state series.
Two years ago in Logan, Utah State controlled the game and knocked off the Cougars, 31-16. It was the Aggies' first win over BYU in 17 years, and it was the Cougars' fourth straight defeat that season. The loss prompted coach Bronco Mendenhall to fire defensive coordinator Jaime Hill the next day and take over that role himself, marking a defining moment for BYU.
Then last September in Provo, USU held an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter before Cougar backup quarterback Riley Nelson, a former Aggie QB, led BYU to a dramatic 27-24 victory. The win was capped by a touchdown from Nelson to Marcus Mathews on a deflected pass with 11 seconds remaining.
"It was one of the crazier games I've ever been a part of, just to have Riley come in and contribute the way he did and to see us come back," said BYU wide receiver JD Falslev, a Logan native.
That win was another defining moment for the Cougars. After that game, Nelson became BYU's new starter, and the quarterback he replaced in the second half, highly touted Jake Heaps, ended up transferring to Kansas at the end of the season.
The next chapter in the BYU-Utah State rivalry begins Friday at 8:15 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"I grew up with an Aggie perspective, then I came down here to BYU, where we didn't pay much attention to the Aggies," Nelson said this week. "It was a rivalry for them and it wasn't so much (at BYU). If anything, the Aggies have caused us Cougars to perk up and pay attention. Not just pay attention, but expect a dogfight. If we don't play our best game, we're going to get beat. It's exciting. Those are the opportunities and the games you look for playing college football."
With a victory Friday, Utah State, which defeated Utah earlier this season, will claim the Beehive Boot, emblematic of state supremacy. The Aggies (4-1) are enjoying their best start in decades.
Certainly, the last two seasons have reignited interest and passion in the BYU-USU rivalry, thanks to the impressive turnaround orchestrated by coach Gary Andersen and his staff.
"I think it's not only the last two games, but it's just watching their program grow and build. I think Gary's done a really nice job," Mendenhall said. "It's not only how they're playing this season, but how they've played us the last two years. I think all that, cumulative. They're building a nice program. It should be a great game."
Nelson left Utah State before Andersen became the head coach, but he deeply respects what Andersen has accomplished in Logan.
"I can't speak highly enough of coach Andersen and what he's done with that program," Nelson said. "Having been there during a 1-11 season (in 2006), then watching the turnaround that he's made, it's absolutely breathtaking and amazing to me. I have the utmost respect for him, his staff and his players."
BYU players who have played Utah State the past two seasons say they consider the Aggies a rival.
"It's kind of developed into a rivalry game and there's a lot on the line for both teams," said offensive lineman Braden Brown. "Both teams have something to prove on Friday. It should be a good game. Utah State's tough. They're well-coached, they play hard and they play physical. They have good players on defense and they are assignment-sound. We need to be ready to play on Friday. We need to be ready to come out and play smash-mouth football and get ready for a battle against those guys."
"Due to the proximity, it's always a rivalry," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "Any time you have two schools as close together as we are, yeah, it's a rivalry."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company