Leave a legacy.
These are three simple words that laid the foundation for what has become the most successful football season at Utah State since 1979.
The last time the Aggies won seven regular season games, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States; the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in Game 7 to win the World Series, and it was the first year of the ever-popular McDonald's Happy Meal.
The last time the Aggies ventured to a bowl game was in 1997. Bill Clinton was president and legendary quarterback Brett Favre won his first Super Bowl title in leading the Green Bay Packers over the New England Patriots.
In 1997, Utah State played in the inaugural Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. This week, they will head to the same city to play in the newly renamed Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
"They started out this season with a goal to leave a legacy, and that's exactly what they've done," said head coach Gary Andersen. "They've done a tremendous job of taking the next step. This team has been a crew of fighters all year long."
During fall camp, the team, led by the senior class, set a series of goals for the season. With a Western Athletic Conference title and a bowl game in mind, they set off with positive attitudes and driven hearts. However, the season did not start as smoothly as expected. Game after game ended in heartbreak.
More than halfway through the season the team was at a 2-5 record.
Ask any Aggie, fan or player, and they will tell you the Hawaii game was the turning point of the season. At halftime, USU was down 28-7. Starting freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton was hurt and had been taken to the hospital. After a motivating halftime discussion, the team came out of the locker room with a changed mind-set.
Junior quarterback Adam Kennedy came in and turned the game around. With that, he turned the Aggies' season around.
"Everyone just kind of looked each other in the eye and asked what had been going wrong," Kennedy said. "It wasn't necessarily blaming anyone, but just finding out what wasn't working, and what we needed to do to make it work. Looking at the guy sitting next to you had a lot to do with the turnaround."
Senior running back Michael Smith said the halftime talk was fairly simple.
"We basically looked at each other and realized our option was to win or to lose," Smith said. "We chose not to lose. We chose to fight. We started playing as a team, as one."
Senior defensive end Levi Koskan added when he said the team finally realized the potential they had.
"A couple guys got in each others' faces, and we just realized that we're a great team," Koskan said. "There's no way we should be at the point we're at. We're better than this. We deserve to be better. Let's go out and do something about it."
The Hawaii game stirred something in the hearts of the Aggies. It showed them they could win. They recognized the talent they had. They went on to win the rest of their regular-season games, ending the season with a 7-5 record.
"Anytime that you're losing, you're never as happy as you are when you're winning. They handled it very well," Andersen said. "I think they always thought they were a good football team. They had the mind-set they could win physically and mentally every game."
This football team has fought hard year after year. For this class of seniors, a season like this one has been all they have worked for.
"We've put in so much hard work, and so many guys before us have put in so much hard work that it's like we deserve it," Koskan said. "There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into getting to this point, so it's really exciting."
For this senior class, to finally have a winning season means everything. From starting their Utah State careers at 2-10, to a 7-5 season and going to a bowl game, they have put in hours of effort and dedication into the game.
"After five years, it's been a long haul, but we all knew what kind of work it was going to take," said senior linebacker Kyle Gallagher We all knew we had it, we just had to learn to finish and that's what we finally did."
Sophomore center Tyler Larsen is taking full advantage of the winning record.
"After all these hard battles that we've fought, we're getting rewarded," he said. "It feels great to be a part of the team that is finally getting this program turned around. Nothing can beat that feeling. My whole entire life I've never been on a winning team."
In November, when the Aggies hosted Nevada at home, they knew a lot was at stake. In the final minutes of the game, Kennedy had the ball on the 48-yard line on a third-and-10. He snuck through a hole in the line to get the first down. Larsen, realizing the significance of the play, gave Aggie fans a small celebratory dance, something atypical for the reserved, quiet lineman.
"That moment we knew we were bowl eligible and had carried the team to that point, that's where it all came from," Larsen said of showing his emotions after that play.
Why did the team start winning? What was it that clicked to lead them to the most successful season the Aggies have seen in years? It's really pretty simple.
"At the end of the day, it's about one thing. We put it on our wristbands that we handed out at the beginning of the year. Players make plays, players win games," Andersen said. "As coaches we're here to give them a plan and ask them to execute it.
"It's one thing if you're not playing hard. It's another if you're having a lot of missed assignments and aren't executing. We just weren't quite making the plays at the beginning of the year. Since Hawaii, we've been able to make those plays five times in a row. Are we perfect? No, we're far from it, but we started to make plays and that's what it's all about."
Leave a legacy. That's what this team wanted to do, and that is what they have accomplished. They have played a vital role in turning around the football program at Utah State. As this season wraps up, the next step is carrying on the legacy and having continued success. The validation they have created for themselves will carry on to create the USU football program for which everyone has longed.
"The biggest thing now is the validation for the hard work that they've done," Andersen said. "They've made some great strides this year, so to have the validation as a group come January, they know the work they do matters. Now there's an expectation the seniors and team leaders have set, that's a big part of carrying that over."
"We wanted to leave a footprint, leave something that the upcoming players could learn from. Hopefully they follow the formula and do better than we have from the beginning," Smith said. "Just take everything in, be coachable. It's not all about the physicality and strength, your mind has to be strong. Be humble, but stay hungry. Be confident, but not arrogant."1 comment on this story
For more Aggie Football Famous Idaho Potato Bowl ticket information, fans can contact the USU Ticket Office at 1-888-USTATE-1 (1-888-878-2831) or 435-797-0305, in person at the USU Ticket Office inside the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
The Aggies will face Ohio University from the Mid-American Conference in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 17 at 3:30 p.m. (MT) at Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho,
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is the second game of the entire bowl calendar and the only one in its time slot. The Bowl will be telecast nationally on ESPN and broadcast on ESPN Radio. Five of the previous seven games have been decided on the last drive, with an average score of 38-25 over the past 14 Bowls.