It was Chuck Shelton's best football team at Utah State after all. That 5-5-1 record is the school's best since 1981. And, happily for the Aggies, the end of 1990 is just the beginning for '91, which is even more promising despite a schedule that starts out at Nebraska, Utah and Oklahoma with a game in Provo in the fifth week.
"I'm envious of the guys who are going to be around next year," says senior inside linebacker Kevin Bouwman of Sandy, whose USU career record for tackles topped off at 382 Saturday in the 45-10 loss at BYU. "We've started something that's going to be good," Bouwman said."We have a lot to look forward to," agrees junior cornerback Ron Edwards, who intercepted Ty Detmer twice in the first quarter Saturday.
"As I told the seniors," said Shelton, "we've come through a lot of hard times, and the seniors are leaving an extremely strong foundation."
These seniors are the first to have been recruited by and completed their careers with this coaching staff. "We had good-character seniors. That's the thing that will stick out in my mind," says defensive coordinator Fred Bleil.
The season was almost two separate halves for USU, which was a downtrodden 1-3 playing Utah, Missouri and Oregon while those programs were at their best, then making the turn in a tie at Fresno State that ultimately led to a second-place tie for USU in the Big West Conference. The next week, the Ags came within two bounces of beating eventual champion San Jose State, and then they won four games in a row to go above .500 until meeting No. 4-ranked BYU.
It was Shelton's first four-game win streak and USU's first five-win season in the BWC/PCAA. The Ags outscored the competition 182-78 in the win streak.
Junior Tracey Jenkins set the USU record for touchdown catches in a season with 14, and he's on an eight-game TD-catching streak. He's sixth in Aggie single-season scoring with 84 points. Junior Roger Grant is the second man in USU history to gain more than 1,300 yards (1,370), and he set the school single-game record with 292 against Long Beach. Nationally ranked Aggies also include punter Rusty Carlsen, kick returner Dexter Pointer, field goal kicker Doug Beach and quarterback Ron Lopez. All are expected back in '91.
"Offensively, we made just great strides," says Shelton. "A history-making offense; we broke records, and that's a long tradition at Utah State."
Offensive coordinator Pat Behrns could hardly wait to start recruiting for next season. "Being 5-5 gives us a chance to feel better about our program and to go out and say we're a program on the come. We've got something to show. I'll feel a lot better on the road recruiting." He's already there.
Shelton's coaches are looking for are three or four junior-college players to fill gaps in the defense that will be left by graduation of Bouwman, outside linebackers Tom Hansen, Piliki Tauteoli and Wayne Wylie, cornerbacks Greg Haynes and Atu Fihaki and free safety Scott Munson. USU also needs a tight end since Monte Ahlmeyer graduates and junior Ryan Duve won't be back. Flanker Rob Howell, who caught his first passes of the season Saturday, is the only other senior on the offense.
The experienced defense was supposed to be USU's cornerstone. For the most part, Bleil was disappointed. Shelton, however, says, "Looking back, in the league games, with the exception of Pacific (45 points), it was."
Balancing of the offense brought it all together, even if it did fail at BYU with a fumble and five interceptions. Grant and fellow back Floyd Foreman weren't enough; once Lopez grasped the offense, USU could take advantage of what was there in most cases.
Lopez, a junior-college recruit, joined the Aggies for fall ball after summer school. It took him half the season to adjust.
"I'll be a lot better," he vows. Lopez says he needs to read defenses better. "I've got the offense down," he says. "I need to nickel and dime instead of going deep all the time," he said, citing overzealousness as one reason he threw so many interceptions Saturday. "I'll mature more," he says.
"Now we can sit down and teach Ron the things he doesn't know," says Behrns.
Grant says he'll work on consistency. He didn't like getting nearly 300 yards one game, 51 in another. Overall, though, "I'm happy with our season," Grant says. "We did some good things. It's just going to build things up going into next year.
"But," said Grant, "losing to BYU - that hurts. Especially when we can play with them. I know we can."
Says Lopez about playing the BYUs and Oregons and Nebraskas and Oklahomas: "People will overlook that record, but we played some tough teams. That just makes us better for our conference. Even though the score is high, we do compete at that level, and that makes us feel good."