The word "best" has held a prominent position in Utah State football Coach Chuck Shelton's vocabulary this season. He's often called this 1990 team the best he's had in five years at Utah State, and he's stuck by that adjective despite a 1-4-1 record.
After the Aggies went to Fresno and tied the two-time defending-champion Bulldogs, he said it was the best game the Aggies had played in his tenure, their best all-around game by far.Thursday afternoon, Shelton hauled out "best" again to describe the effort the Aggies made last Saturday at San Jose State in a 34-27 game that saw Utah State two bounces shy of knocking off the Big West frontrunner. "That was the best we've ever looked since I've been here," Shelton says.
It's all true, too.
"But," he adds, "that needs to be turned into victory somewhere."
That somewhere has got to be today at Romney Stadium starting at 1 p.m.
It's been six weeks since the Aggies had a home game. In their last four games, they were overwhelming underdogs.
Now, they're at home, it's homecoming, visiting Nevada-Las Vegas is 3-1 in league play but not a prohibitive favorite at 4-4 overall, the Aggies have a good shot at winning their next four games and staying in the conference race, and the offense, behind quarterback Ron Lopez, is to the point where Shelton says he can expect plays to work rather than just hoping they'll happen.
"We need to win," Shelton says.
"We've got to be emotional," adds offensive coordinator Pat Behrns.
And that may be the key.
The Aggies played their hearts out at Fresno and tied one of the league's best teams, a bounce or two from a win. They played even harder at San Jose State - gave it their best - and lost to the league's best team, again a bounce or two from an upset. Now they have to bounce back again.
"There's bound to be a letdown after two emotional, physical games," says defensive coordinator Fred Bleil, "but we've had a pretty good week this week."
"These players are pretty resilient," Behrns says.
Even Shelton, who can be upbeat and pessimistic at once, says, "The team is in excellent condition mentally. We've had awful good practices, and that was one of my concerns."
But practice doesn't win games, not when a team makes two backbreaking mistakes a game. Twice the Aggies lost contain on fourth down at San Jose and the Spartans scored. They lost contain on a bootleg run and a reverse run for touchdowns at Fresno. "Four errors in two weeks cost us terribly, cost us the league lead," says Bleil. "I was very displeased."
"You can get beat by anybody if you don't control some controllables," Shelton says. "There are some breaks you don't have control of, but at the same time, the people that win games seem to get those bounces to go their way." So far, the Aggies haven't really gotten the hang of that.
To beat UNLV, Bleil says his defense must contain the big-play capabilities of split end Keenan McCardell (No. 1 in the Big West) and flanker Hunkie Cooper - "as quick as anybody in the league," says Shelton.
Offensivley, Behrns says the Aggies will take what's there and hope it's a mix of run (Roger Grant, Floyd Foreman) and pass.
AGGIE AILMENTS - Guard Greg O'Banion will be out and have arthroscopic shoulder surgery Monday after trying to play all season with a separation and inflammation. Backup fullback Craig Sorensen had knee surgery Monday and is out for the season. Linebacker Greg Davis (broken foot) and defensive tackle Joe Jacobs (knee) remain out. Fullback Sean Hampton (ankle sprain) is sparingly available. Quarterback Ron Lopez and running back Roger Grant are sore but practiced all week and will play. Linebacker Del Lyles (shoulder, thigh bruise) will play but not start, and backup Jermaine Younger has had some nagging problems, as do linebacker Kevin Bouwman, center Warren Bowers and tight end Ryan Duve. They're expected to play.