Associated Press
Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton (16) dives into the end zone in third quarter of play against Louisiana Tech during their NCAA college football game in Ruston, La., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — It is hard to overstate just exactly how big Utah State football’s 48-41 overtime victory at Louisiana Tech was on Saturday night. For Andersen and the seniors on the Aggie team, the win was an exclamation point on a season that has been the payoff for four hard years. A school that was once only known as a punch line is now getting attention for winning big games.

“Really excited would probably be an understatement,” Andersen said. “It’s been a long road. Been a long four years. For these kids to have success is a special time.”

More than a thousand fans packed the Spectrum to watch the victory on the video board. When the team arrived at the Logan airport after midnight, around 500 fans stood out in the rain to welcome the Western Athletic Conference champions back home. It wasn’t that long ago that those kind of numbers wouldn’t be uncommon for home games during past seasons.

“To get into the airport and see 500 faces waiting for us. … I don’t know if the kids that were in this program prior to us getting here could have ever seen that coming,” Andersen said.

The only thing sweeter than the airport reception for Andersen and the team was waking up on Sunday morning not only as conference champions, but with a newly minted top 25 ranking. The Associated Press poll voted the Aggies 25th in the nation after knocking off the previously 19th-ranked Bulldogs. The USA Today Coaches Poll had the Aggies just outside the top 25 at 26th.

“It’s something that hasn’t been accomplished for a long time,” Andersen said of the Aggies' first ranking of any kind since 1978. “It’s a big step for this program, an exciting step for the program. The respect that the kids get being in the top 25 is something that means a lot to them.”

The accomplishments the football team has racked up in an unprecedented season in Cache Valley are numerous. Louisiana Tech was the Aggies' first victory in school history against a ranked opponent on the road. The team won a conference championship for the first time since 1997 and tied a school record with nine wins in the season.

In fact, the football news was so big it was the first thing on the mind of basketball coach Stew Morrill following a 77-68 victory on the hardwood on Saturday night.

“The best news of the day is that Utah State won a WAC football championship,” Morrill said. “Having a really good football program is so important for every university. It just helps in so many ways: community, university, everything.

“I couldn’t be happier for those guys. It’s a hell of a deal. We’ve been fortunate to be in their shoes a few times. Winning a championship is a wonderful thing. Everybody involved has to pat themselves on the back and feel great about it.”

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There is still one more game left in the regular season, but with the conference championship the Aggies know for sure that they will be bowling again come December. Only the location has yet to be determined. Andersen said he will meet with athletic director Scott Barnes this week to see what bowl options are available.

The WAC champion gets an automatic bid to the Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl, which both Andersen and Barnes have described as a great experience for the fans and players last year. However, with a national ranking, and perhaps a 10-win season, other bowls that are more lucrative and have better exposure could become available.

Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter at DesNewsKraig.