BOISE — The thwumping on the loudspeakers spoke to Chuckie Keeton. His right foot tapped in rhythm, then his left. The Aggie quarterback faintly swayed to the music during the pause in practice.
A few minutes later, running back Kerwynn Williams was earnestly interviewing with a TV station when a teammate leaned in and began making faces. Williams burst into laughter as the camera whirred.
It wasn't exactly a comedy club moment, though it could have been. When you're 10-2, nationally ranked and awaiting Saturday's Potato Bowl, there are a lot of good things to laugh about.
This year the Utah State Aggies seem to know when to turn it on and when to lighten up. They're back in Boise for the second straight bowl year, and you might say they have the drill memorized. They know all about the annual bowling activity, which is an actual recreational event, not just bowl-related. They know about the cart racing, the awards dinner, the hospital visits, the battle of the bands and, oh yeah, the actual game.
One year after their breakthrough appearance, they're back, this time with a certainty they have never possessed. They lost last year's game 24-23.
"Before, there was maybe a little bit of, 'Wow, we've never been to a bowl game before,'" coach Gary Andersen said.
In some ways, small bowls are like regular season road trips. But instead of one week of practice, there are two or three. The teams don't leave on Friday to set up a command center; they go on Tuesday. Then there are the aforementioned activities. In the regular season, teams barely leave their hotel rooms. On bowl weeks they're hardly in their rooms.
In most ways, bowl preparation is a no-nonsense proposition. But as Williams admits, once you've attended one or two, there's a little wiggle room. Thus, his teammates can crack him up during interviews and nobody will get mad.
Spontaneous stuff happens.
"I feel like Coach A prepares us well, but has done a good job of letting us be ourselves. That's what makes Coach A Coach A," Williams began in his TV interview.
Then he bent over laughing and momentarily walked away.
"Excuse me," he said to the interviewer, "I know ... he's making me laugh."
Williams continued: "We definitely feel he's done a good job of letting us flip the switch. Coach gives us the opportunity to be ourselves, but we know we have a ton of work and that's what Coach A expects. We know what we need to do."
In one way, the light sense of confidence is because the Aggies have done this before. There's also the focus a nearly undefeated season brings (USU lost two games by a total of five points). Finally, there's the talent consideration. Last year's Potato Bowl team had three players who went on to make NFL rosters — Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Bobby Wagner. Yet this season Williams stepped in for Turbin/Smith to rush for more than 1,200 yards. Wagner, now a starting linebacker in Seattle, was replaced by the combination of Jake Doughty, Zach Vigil, Tavaris McMillian and Cade Cowdin. Doughty earned first-team all-WAC honors.
"We've come a long ways, top to bottom, and I think we've got our classes spaced out and it gives us the opportunity to compete," Andersen said. "You're always going to be thin in football programs and injuries are a big factor, but top to bottom, young guys are developing quicker than in the past."
Experienced, more confident, deeper — it seems there's a lot of Aggie attitude in Boise this week.
"I don't ever want to say we were just excited to be there last year, because I don't believe that," Andersen said. "That team really badly wanted to win. But this team, they've gone through it, they expect to win, just like our opponent does."
When the Aggies started camp last fall, they would break huddle some days by calling "WAC champs!" Other days they would bellow, "Bowl champs!"
"Those," Andersen said, "are lofty, lofty goals."
In that sense, the 2012 Aggies aren't joking a bit.