SAN DIEGO — And for their next trick, the Utah State Aggies will make a long history of futility completely disappear.
In the comedy “What About Bob?” Bill Murray plays the part of Bob Wiley, the neurotic patient of Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a renowned mental health professional. Marvin drills into his patient that he needs to make “baby steps” to recovery.
The Aggies know all about these things.
On Thursday they took one more step to distance themselves from a half-century of losing. Former coach Gary Andersen taught them how to win. Then he taught them how to win in the postseason. Now first-year coach Matt Wells has them winning in the postseason against ranked opponents, thanks to their 21-14 Poinsettia Bowl win over No. 24 Northern Illinois.
The mind is a marvelous thing.
It even has a sense of humor.
How else do they explain being here after decades of woeful football? Going into Thursday’s bowl game they were 2-52 all-time against ranked teams.
Chalk up one more baby step in the right direction.
“It says that Utah State is a program that, not long ago, we were the little brothers,” said linebacker Jake Doughty, who had eight tackles for a defense that held renowned NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch’s offense to just 315 yards. “So it’s nice to be recognized.”
Speaking of recognition, didn’t they know Lynch finished third in the Heisman voting? That he was the nation’s No. 2 rusher — as a quarterback?
“Absolutely, we were worried,” said linebacker Zach Vigil. “He has awesome talent, he’s a Heisman finalist, a great player. And strong. That’s one thing we knew about him: He was strong.”
Utah State’s defense?
On one hand, USU’s third consecutive bowl trip resolved any questions as to whether the Aggies belong in the postseason or not. Of course they do. The first of their recent bowls, the 2010 Potato Bowl, was slightly puzzling for USU fans. Since when were the Aggies still kicking in December?
Their progression went like this:
First year: Surprise!
Second year: What just happened here?
This year: Get used to it.
However, with five offensive starters out on Thursday, the Aggies should have checked in their uniforms weeks ago.
So the storyline for the game was clear. NIU was going to rise or fall on the play of Lynch, while the Aggies’ only hope was for their defense to contain him.
Isn’t that like containing an outbreak of flu?
But Lynch really never got loose. His longest rush was eight yards, his longest completion 24.
Going strictly by history, the odds weren’t good for the Aggies. For all their success in recent years, including three straight bowl trips, they came into the game just 2-52 all-time against ranked teams. The Aggies have been good lately, but even then they haven’t been able to establish that they could beat elite teams. Even this year, their lone ranked opponent was Fresno State, which beat them in the conference title game.
Mostly they’ve been beating teams they should, but few they shouldn’t.
As good as it always is to end a season with a bowl game, Thursday’s proceedings had a small-bowl feel. When the flag was unfurled on the field by a high school football team, 15 minutes before kickoff, there were nearly as many people on the turf as in the stands (attendance 23,408).
In the early going, it seemed the Aggies would waste what few chances they would get. NIU shanked its first punt, setting the Aggies up on the Huskies’ 29, but a 52-yard field goal try was short. Then Lynch fumbled, giving USU the ball at NIU’s 46. But the Aggies fumbled back — then recovered on the same play. By then kicker Nick Diaz was rolling, making a pair of field goals for a 6-0 lead.
If there were doubts about the Aggies’ intentions to upset the Huskies, they squashed them, along with Lynch, on a fourth-and-3 at the USU 25 with 46 seconds left in the half.
The move averted what might have changed the outcome.
In a stroke of genius, the Poinsettia Bowl set off fireworks at halftime, rather than waiting until the finish. The Aggies provided the entertainment thereafter.
When safety Brian Suite (11 tackles) picked off a Lynch pass on the first possession of the second half, it was clear something was cooking. Vigil (nine tackles) and Doughty led the way.
Soon enough, another step was in the books.
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