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Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Utah State head football coach Gary Andersen answers questions from print journalists during the Western Athletic Conference football preview at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah July 26, 2010. Keith Johnson/Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on Utah State University's athletic program. Today we take a look at Aggie football.

LOGAN — Two years into the Gary Andersen Era at Utah State University, the Aggies remain extremely optimistic that they're on the right course to finally get their football program headed back in the right direction again.

Yes, extremely optimistic indeed considering they've posted back-to-back 4-8 seasons in Andersen's first two years at the USU helm.

But Andersen has a game plan in place to resurrect a long-struggling program which hasn't had a winning season since 1996.

"I feel very good about our progression," said Andersen. "When I first took this job, you always think it's a good job. But there's no doubt in my mind this is a tremendous place to live and to coach, and I'm very, very excited about the future here.

"Our university president and athletic director have delivered on everything they promised when I took the job. Now we've got to do our job and go out and win more football games.

"It's been a tough two years for our coaches and a grind for the kids, but they're fighting every single day," Andersen said. "And I believe we're making strides and we're looking forward to the future."

After taking the USU job, Andersen focused his off-the-field attention on three main areas that he felt needed improvement when it came to Utah State's student-athletes.

First, they needed to try and recruit more in-state athletes into the program, and that number has risen dramatically from 18 to 60 in his 2 1/2 years on the job. Second, he felt like the Aggies needed to establish a way to better implement the use of LDS missionaries into the football program, and now there are 30-plus missionaries that are either currently serving missions or are preparing to return from missionary service. And third, they wanted to bring more Polynesian players into the program, and now that number is around 30.

Andersen says the USU administration has shown they believe in him and his plan to turn this thing around.

"The commitment they've given me after two years, they had enough faith in me to give me a brand new six-year deal, and now we'll be able to go out and recruit with that commitment behind us, it is just tremendous," he said.

"Things are ever changing in college football, but with the community we have, the university we have and the administration we have, I know this school will always be in a quality conference. We have too much to offer."

Now that the powerhouse Boise State program has left the Western Athletic Conference for the Mountain West Conference, Andersen says the door is open for somebody else to step to the forefront in the WAC.

And next year, three more current WAC schools — Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii — will follow in Boise State's footsteps and head for the MWC as well, throwing things wide open for someone to become the new WAC kingpin.

So why, Andersen asks, can't that someone be Utah State?

"We got rid of the best team (BSU) so now we've got a chance," he said. "There's gonna be a new champion this year, absolutely. There's Nevada, there's Fresno State, there's Hawaii and there's the rest of the pack trying to earn respect, trying to move into contention in November and get to a bowl game.

"Is there more of an opportunity with the most dominant team in league gone? Yes.

"But at the end of the day, this is still a quality league this year and I believe it's going to be a quality league moving forward with the addition of Texas-San Antonio and Texas State," Andersen said. "I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised with the competitive level of this league."

After a two-year hiatus in their annual "Battle of the Brothers" with the University of Utah — they've faced each other 109 times since 1892 — the Aggies and Utes have agreed to a four-year, home-and-home deal beginning next year. They've also got their other instate rival, BYU, on Utah State's schedule from 2011 through 2015.

And though the Aggies went just 4-8 last year, one of those wins came against BYU. Thanks to that 31-16 victory — the Aggies' first over the Cougars since 1993 — Utah State was awarded the Beehive Boot, symbolic of collegiate football supremacy in the state of Utah, at the end of the season.

Andersen sees that as a sign that USU doesn't have to take a back seat to anyone in the Beehive State any more.

"I believe we can be a power in this state and recruit at a high level in this state," he said. "We're not playing the third fiddle in this state; I don't believe we are right now and I don't believe we will be in the future.

"The loyalty of our fans here is off the charts. It's going to be a great challenge, no question, but it's a great opportunity, too. It's a great place for me to be, and I'm excited about the opportunity to sustain what we've worked so hard to accomplish. We've made strides every year since we've been here and we're going to keep working hard, take the state, and we're never gonna lay down.

"For me and for these kids, over the last two years, we have really worked hard on our young men in the program wrapping their arms around this community and giving back to this community," Andersen said. "We're all in here together. This is a tough-minded community with a bunch of hard-working people, and that's how we want to be known as a football team. We want to be involved and be a part of things, reaching out to this community. It's a team effort to get this thing turned around."

USU Athletic Director Scott Barnes has the utmost confidence that Andersen is up to the tremendous task of fixing the Aggies' long-suffering football fortunes, even though they've gone just 8-16 overall in Andersen's first two years at the helm.

"Don't ever lose sight of who we have running the ship," Barnes said. "And I am excited and believe that Gary Andersen has and will continue to do a great job. He is the right guy for the job. He and his staff are exactly what we need here at Utah State, and we will continue to work towards providing the resources they need to do the job.

"Look back at our recent history, the last 15-20 years. Have we had a lot of bad hires in a row, or what haven't we done to help them succeed? ... Long-term success comes with a plan and resources that are invested in the right leader. And I think, for the first time in a long time, we have that."

email: rhollis@desnews.com