FOR MOST OF coach Ron McBride's tenure as head coach at the University of Utah, beating Utah State was something the Utes did as a matter of course. Like rising taxes and sitcom reruns, they could plan on it, year after year.
That all came to an end on that fateful night two years ago when the Aggies beat the Utes, 20-17. After eight straight years of Utah wins, Utah State had changed the course of events.It wasn't just that the Aggies won, it was how they won. They roughed up Utah running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala by repeatedly punching him in the groin. A nasty move, but effective. They let the Utes know they weren't going to be intimidated. Then came last year, when the Aggies just out-hustled the Utes, winning 21-14.
The first time they lost, the Utes emerged complaining their big, tough running back had been a victim of foul play. But last year was another matter entirely. Then it was McBride who wanted to do punch his players in bad places. They ended up losing again, this time McBride contending it was due to lack of effort on his team's part.
Suddenly, losing to USU wasn't a novelty and it wasn't a fluke, it was a fact. The Aggies had become a bonafide problem. The Utes were talking to themselves. The losses not only gave the Aggies bragging rights, it cast a pall over the Utes for the rest of their seasons. The coup de grace came when an Aggie player pointed out - after the second win - that it was time to focus on the real big game: Idaho State.
But by late Saturday, the Utes were back to winning, though, claiming a 20-12 win at Romney Stadium. All was back in order in the Utes' world. The Aggies, under new coach Dave Arslanian, could no longer look smug every time they came through Salt Lake on their way to the airport. And the Utes could finally look Coach Mac in the face.
The win came none too soon for Utah and its considerable following - many of whom drove to Logan on Saturday with big plans. Playing the Aggies had stopped being a picnic and started being a sentence. Consequently, this year they vowed they would change things - which they did. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't convincing, but why look a gift-Aggie in the mouth?
McBride was all business this week - to no one's surprise. Joviality was not his mood of choice. He spent the bulk of his time impersonating a wounded Doberman. You didn't want to get too close for fear of getting nipped. The man was preparing for war. Then again, that isn't unusual. McBride generally spends the week before the season opener getting himself and his team in an ornery frame of mind.
If there has been a criticism of McBride's teams, it's that they tend to win big games but lose to teams they shouldn't. For his part, McBride shies away from admitting his Utes have been too cocky when playing the Aggies. Still, what else could it be? The Utes have more money, talent, depth, size and, it seems, ego.
"Last year we just - the effort wasn't there to win and theirs was," said McBride. "Two years ago we had the opportunity to win, but with Chris hurt it made a difference. He could have scored two or three times for us. They took away one of our weapons."
Asked if the Utes had overlooked the Aggies the last two years, McBride rejoined, "I don't know how we could have. Every game we've played with them has been tough. You don't show up in this day and age and not play hard against anybody. Just because your name is Utah State or Weber State or Boise State doesn't mean you don't play your (expletive) off, or you're going to get beat."
Thus, on Saturday, the Utes brought their "A" game. OK, maybe their B-minus game, but they weren't being picky. They were playing for "pass" or "fail." The Utes weren't great, but they owned the scoreboard. They shot themselves in the foot with penalties several times, stalled on offense and generally acted like a team with mediocre written all over itself. But at least after two years of failing on opening night, they came ready to play. No whining about dirty play, no playing it cool. After leading 14-5 at the half, they logged a couple of workman-like field goals in the second half and stopped the Aggie offense cold. The Aggies' reign of terror ended after two years. And finally it seemed they had figured out what McBride had been saying all along: If you don't take the opposition seriously, you won't be taking home a win.