LOGAN — As football days go, Friday couldn’t have been much better. Late afternoon sunlight slanted low off ember-colored hills. It was as good a crowd as there has ever been in Romney Stadium, filled to the back for the Utah State-BYU game.
Then Chuckie Keeton went down, and one of the more promising days in Aggie football history became one of the worst. Their dodging, daring quarterback was gone with a knee injury, likely for the season.
Sometimes the game ruins the best scenarios imaginable.
Asked for a prognosis on Keeton, USU coach Matt Wells replied, “No idea, but it doesn’t look good.”
Key players are hurt in almost every game. BYU running back Michael Alisa, listed as the Cougars’ starting halfback, was declared out for the season, just before kickoff. USU has lost thee starters in two weeks.
Still, there’s something about a quarterback falling — as did Utah’s Jordan Wynn last year against the Aggies — that turns a day from spellbinding to sad, a skit waiting to play out.
“I think there was deflation a little bit in the whole stadium,” Wells said.
Thus it went. The injury to USU’s Heisman candidate turned everyone’s mood — maybe even BYU fans — as blue as the Aggies’ shirts. What might have been a classic turned into a 31-14 yawner.
“Right now,” Wells said, “we’re facing a lot of adversity.”
Keeton wound up on his back, then on a sideline gurney, then out of uniform and on crutches. There went the thrill-fest — and some of the glamour, too. That’s not saying BYU would have failed anyway. But the Aggies were done the second Keeton went down. The Aggie defense broke down enough times to allow the Cougars to put the game out of reach in the third quarter.
Backup quarterback Craig Harrison did a respectable job of filling in. But if the Aggies were to beat their age-old opponent, it wasn’t going to be with their starter in the audience.
Friday’s game was met with as much optimism and enthusiasm in Cache Valley as any game. Ever. Former Aggie coach Gary Andersen — now the coach at Wisconsin — was there, as was Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. The combination of USU’s success in MWC (2-0) and BYU’s vulnerability lent an air of confidence to a place that had none for eons. Around 2,500 students camped out overnight to secure good seats.
It was enough to make the field’s namesake, the late Merlin Olsen, smile.
An expected full house next week against Boise State would give USU its first 3-game sellout in history.
Keeton’s injury occurred with four minutes left in the first quarter. He was running left in his usual exuberant style. But he was also in the open field, where quarterbacking injuries lurk. That’s what happened during Keeton’s freshman season at Hawaii, when a neck injury cost him his final four games.
Ever since, questions have persisted about his freewheeling style. In August he said, “That injury my freshman year in Hawaii was kind of a wakeup call. First, I was on a stretcher, then the medical bills. Those were two wakeup calls.”
A third, more urgent call came on Friday. As Uani Unga and two other Cougars closed in, Keeton gave a dancing hop, coming down on his left leg just as he was hit. His knee continued north as the tackle’s momentum took him south.
Though the Cougars were only ahead 10-7 at the time, it was clear the curtain was dropping. The crowd hushed. A bright afternoon faded to night. On the first play of the game, BYU intercepted and went for a touchdown.
“It didn’t start out very good and obviously didn’t finish well,” Wells said. “It wasn’t the script we had written or planned.”
The Aggies lost to BYU for the 13th time in 14 games. Wells said it was no more painful than any other, and that his team is still in the MWC race.
“We’ve got to find a way to compete for that championship. We’re going to have to regroup,” he said.
By then the stadium was empty, the sky dark.
Somehow it felt as though winter was at the door.
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