You know who would be national champions if close counted?
Utah State’s football team.
Last week’s three-point loss to USC in the Coliseum is just the latest in a string of narrow defeats.
The Aggies’ won-loss records over the past two-plus seasons are 7-6, 11-2 and 2-2 (so far). But if not for fumbles, missed field goals, onside kicks, extra-point failures, blocked punts and more, they could very well be 29-1, or possibly, if you’re really reaching, 30-0.
“That would be pretty sweet,” said USU coach Matt Wells. “I didn’t think about it like that. That’s very interesting.”
They’ve lost 10 games since 2011 and nine of them were by a touchdown or less (the other was by 10 points). They held the lead in the second half in nine of them. They held the lead in the fourth quarter in seven of them. They outgained their opponents in eight of them (the two losses to BYU being the exceptions). They have given up game-winning touchdowns in the final 42 seconds in four of them.
“You can’t point your finger on one thing — offense, defense, special teams,” says Wells. “It’s been pretty consistent — it’s a team game.”
The good news: USU, one of the worst teams in the country only a few years ago, can go toe to toe with quality opponents. They’ve won 18 of their last 23 games, losing by deficits of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 3 points, respectively.
The bad news: They can’t quite finish the job.
“USU has come a long way in the last 15 years,” says Wells. “Those games used to be 40-point blowouts. Now we’re going into Auburn and the Coliseum and Madison and Utah and BYU and playing for the win in the fourth quarter. It’s still a burning desire to try to get it flipped and win some of those games. But to go play USC on the road against a top-10 defense and have the game go down to the last possession, I’ll take it.”
Here’s a look at what might have been for USU.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Playing the defending national champions on the road in front of 87,000 fans, USU outgained Auburn 448 yards to 364 and led almost the entire game.
The Aggies held a 10-point lead with 3:38 left. The Tigers scored twice in the final 2:07, throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass, recovering an inside kick and driving for another touchdown with 30 seconds left.
As you’ll see, the Aggies, who lost to Oklahoma 31-24 in 2010 and to Texas A&M 38-30 in 2009, have a knack for losing close ones in the so-called money games.
The Aggies seemed to have victory in hand when the Rams punted with 2:17 left in the game and USU up 21-13. But the Ags fumbled the punt and the Rams recovered the ball at the 15-yard line. Four plays later the Rams scored a touchdown with 42 seconds left and converted a two-point conversion to force overtime. It was their second gift of the game — in the third quarter, the Rams stripped the ball from a USU ball carrier and returned it for a touchdown.
In overtime, the Rams scored TDs on their first two possessions and the Aggies matched them. After the second TD cut CSU’s lead to one, the Aggies decided to go for two points and the win rather than kick a PAT for a tie that would force another overtime. They failed – twice. A penalty gave them a second chance, but running back Robert Turbin couldn’t get into the end zone.
The Aggies held a 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter and continued to lead until the final seconds. Riley Nelson, a Logan native who started at quarterback for the Aggies as a freshman, relieved starter Jake Heaps and led a 96-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Marcus Matthews with 11 seconds to play. The Aggies deflected the pass, but it didn’t matter. As a freshman, Nelson had similarly rallied the Aggies to a late win over Fresno State.
The Aggies held a 21-17 lead entering the fourth quarter, but fourth-quarter leads never seem to be a good strategy for the Ags. The Bulldogs scored on two touchdown passes. It remains the only game the Aggies have lost since 2010 that was by more than a touchdown.
The Aggies led 17-14 with 11 minutes to go. Then the USU punter dropped the snap and drew a penalty for kicking the ball off the ground, setting up the winning score. Tech scored on an 8-yard run on fourth down with 10:19 left, and the Aggies couldn’t respond.
The Aggies led 23-10 in the third quarter of the Potato Bowl and had thoroughly dominated the game to that point. It came down to this: The Aggies failed to run out the clock and had to punt late in the game. The Bobcats drove 61 yards in the final two minutes and scored the game-winner on a 1-yard run with 13 seconds left.
The Aggies led 14-3 at halftime. The Badgers responded with an 82-yard punt return for a TD and a 17-yard TD run, taking a 16-14 lead with three minutes remaining. The Aggies had a chance to win it, but Nick Diaz’s 37-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left was wide right.
The Aggies, who never led in the second half, had a chance to tie the game with 7:47 left in the game, but Josh Thompson’s 38-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
The Aggies took a 23-14 lead early in the third quarter, but missed the PAT kick. Utah cut the lead to 23-17 with a field goal, then recovered an onside kick and launched a scoring drive to take a 24-23 lead. A Diaz field goal gave USU a 26-24 lead in the fourth quarter, but Utah answered with two field goals.
The Aggies tied the game 14-14 in the third quarter but the Trojans added a fourth-quarter field goal — their only score of the second half — to hold off the Aggies in front of 67,000 people in the Coliseum.