Mention Utah State, and watch Utah coach Ron McBride's blood pressure zoom.
The Utes open the 1998 season against the Aggies, just like they did in 1997 and '96, so it's hard to get around the subject, but it still brings McBride to a boil because no one seems to care how often Utah beat USU in the past.McBride says people care only that USU beat Utah the past two years. "Everyone thinks we're supposed to go up and kill Utah State, and that's not the way it is," McBride ranted after Thursday's final practice before the trip to Logan for Saturday's 7 p.m. Romney-Stadium game.
"Hey, give them credit. They're a good football team, tough guys who play hard for four quarters and know how to win," he said. Last year, the Ags played Colorado State, New Mexico, BYU and Oregon State tough as well.
Now the Aggies are somewhat of an unknown with Dave Arslanian moving in as coach and Snow/
BYU transfer Riley Jensen likely to get his first Division IA start after a redshirt year.
The Utes are also an unknown after a 6-5 season that should have been better.
McBride said he feels good about his team, but he admits, "I felt good last year. That's football." He can't compare this, his ninth team going into a season, to any of his other eight. "I always feel best about the team that's going to play." If he didn't, he said he'd be a poor coach.
"If you went in and said everything's great, perfect, then you're a little goofy.
"If I look at (the team) on paper, it looks solid," McBride said.
Last year, the Utes thought they'd solved a leadership problem from '96, but offense and placekicking were maddeningly inconsistent. Many '97 problems were from scads of injuries to starters - four at left offensive tackle and eight or nine at linebacker alone.
This year, the Utes say they have no superstars like Kevin Dyson and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, both in the NFL now, so everyone fits in. "We're a real melting pot. We're like one person. We're a family. That's the difference," said senior safety and co-captain Robert Love.
"We're just all closer than I've ever seen," said sophomore Dar-nell Arceneaux, the starting quarterback. "Sophomores and freshmen are emerging as leaders. There's good team unity. Everyone's on the same page." He said there is competition for starting jobs nearly everywhere. Senior Jonathan Crosswhite, a nine-game starter in '97, is always breathing down his neck. That's good, Ar-ce-neaux said. No one took a play off in practice for fear of losing his job.
Arceneaux rejuvenated the Utes when starting (and winning) the last two '97 games, diving six feet into the air over Fuamatu-Ma'afala to score a TD, diving for first downs, risking his body for yards and generally inspiring anyone in red.
But now he's a sophomore going into his first season opener as the QB. He knows the difference. "It's not so much nerves," Arceneaux said. "I'm more than a little anxious," he said, adding he watched some college games on TV this week and "that left me more excited than anything. These guys make me look good," he said as offensive linemen, receivers and backs strode past him.
"We're a lot hungrier than before," said running back Omar Bacon, held out of most practices for two weeks since a high-ankle injury that some call a bruise and others a sprain. Bacon said he doesn't want to know what it is. He expects to be ready Saturday.
After breaking a redshirt year partway through '96 to help the team when Fuamatu-Ma'afala was hurt and redshirting last year because the Utes had Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Juan Johnson healthy, Bacon, a junior, is listed as the starting back. "I've learned this offense like the back of my hand," he said. But he admits he's only equal to junior college transfer Mike Anderson, who's equal to him. Bacon, a co-captain, has said, "It feels good to go into a season knowing I will play running back." He won't say "start at running back," though he's paid his dues and it's his time.
"It's the whole team's time," Bacon said, "to win it big." He said that's why 90 percent of the team stayed in Salt Lake during winter and summer breaks for improved offseason conditioning.
"This is probably the best shape (a team's been in) going into the first game since I've been here," McBride said.
"This game (vs. USU) will tell a lot about how our season's going to go," said Love. "If we execute and run to the ball, we'll have an excellent season.
"We don't want to just have a winning season," Love added. "We want to win it all."
It all starts with the Aggies in Logan Saturday.