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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The Utah State Aggies celebrate their win over the Utah Utes in Logan Friday, Sept. 7, 2012.
I think we moved on from it and tried to play as well as we could, but this Thursday we’ve definitely got to try to make a statement. —Travis Wilson

SALT LAKE CITY — A cloud seemed to pass over Utah State coach Matt Wells’ eyes, changing them from cornflower to a dark Aggie blue. He had been asked whether instate games such as Thursday’s USU-Utah affair are overrated.

“No,” he said in a clipped cadence. “This means a whole lot to this program. But I’m not going to say it means more than a Mountain West Conference game. It won’t be a make or break game for this program.”

Good news for Aggie fans, because that’s pretty much what happened to Utah in last year’s 27-20 loss to USU. It didn’t break the program, but it diverted it.

The loss would have been just a flesh wound if the Utes had gone on to succeed in Pac-12 play, but they didn’t. They struggled with quarterback problems until finishing their first non-bowl season in a decade. The death knell sounded when back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona put them in losing territory for good.

But the trouble had started in Logan with a blocked punt and a tackle that sent quarterback Jordan Wynn into retirement. It continued with a tying Utah touchdown that was called back on a penalty.

The season was new, but already the Utes had been waylaid by a team that hadn’t defeated them in 15 years.

“I think in a way it may have set the tone for a lot of things,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

“It most definitely did,” Ute receiver Dres Anderson said. “That loss last year was a negative for the team, for sure. It went down from there. But we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen this year.”

Trends are a tricky thing. While one game doesn’t always make a season, other times it does. Losing to USU stripped away any illusions that the Utes could get by with unstable/untested quarterbacks and an inexperienced offensive coordinator. Though they returned the next week to beat BYU, it took two failed Cougar field goals to salvage the win. Once Pac-12 play began, the course was set. Losses to Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Oregon State made it official.

The season was a dud.

Falling to the Aggies was far from the biggest upset in school history. That was the best team USU ever produced. Besides, a 1980 season-opening loss to Boise State — then still a Big Sky team — was a much harsher shock. Utah finished 5-5-1 that year. A 1993 loss to Idaho, after a WAC-opening loss to Wyoming, triggered a ho-hum 7-6 season.

In the Ron McBride era, a single loss often led to several in succession.

Once the pattern was set, it played out.

“I mean, last year was definitely a disappointing loss,” Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said on Monday. “I think we moved on from it and tried to play as well as we could, but this Thursday we’ve definitely got to try to make a statement.”

Actually, the Utes never did move on. Had they not defeated BYU, they would have had a six-game losing streak — the longest since McBride’s final season (2002).

Considering Utah plays five preseason top-25 teams, this year’s game against USU could set a precedent, too. Weber State on Sept. 7 shouldn’t be a worry for the Utes, but then come games against Oregon State, BYU, UCLA and Stanford — all potential losses.

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When they’re in the moment, coaches deny a single game can make or break a season. But later they’ll admit when a sea change occurs. It can work the other way, too. Utah’s 2011 win over Oregon State got the Utes back into contention for a bowl game. A 2008 win at Michigan set up an undefeated Sugar Bowl year. A season-opening win over Texas A&M launched a 12-0 run in 2004.

Wells is right — one non-conference game doesn’t destroy a program. But it can sidetrack seasons.

Motivational speakers claim that altering habits can change a person’s direction. As the Utes can attest, that’s even true when the change is for the worse.

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