BOISE — When the Utah State football team set out for fall camp it had three goals on its checklist: win the Western Athletic Conference championship, play in a bowl game, and win a bowl game.
The Aggies have completed two out of three and can check the last item off the list Saturday.
Utah State is back in Boise for its second straight trip to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. After falling to Ohio in heartbreaking fashion 24-23 last season, the Aggies (10-2) will be looking for bowl-game redemption against Toledo (9-3).
“They're excited again to not just get to a bowl game, but for these kids they just don't want it to end,” coach Gary Andersen said of his team’s attitude toward going back to Boise. “They love being around each other. They have a great time at practice. They're excited about just being able to spend another week together, because this is it."
The Aggies are happy to be bowling again, but after setting a school record with 10 wins and taking home an outright conference championship for the first time since the 1930s, just appearing in a bowl game is not enough for this Utah State team; winning it is necessary to cap off the school's best season ever.
“If we go into this game and lose it, it will almost kill everything we’ve done this year. We’ve done a lot of amazing things, winning a WAC championship and all of that, but getting to a bowl game and losing it would be the last thing you remember for the season, is taking an 'L' in the bowl game,” senior cornerback Will Davis said. “That’s not a great feeling at all. That’s something that none of us want to taste.”
The Rockets have a balanced offense that averaged 33 points a game. Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens and his top targets Bernard Reedy and Alonzo Russell will test the Aggie defense, which finished the season No. 8 in the nation in points allowed at 15.4 points per game. The Aggies did not allow a first-quarter touchdown all season and will look to keep that streak intact Saturday.
Toledo was favored in the preseason to win the MAC’s Western Division but, after winning eight of its first nine games, fell to Northern Illinois and Ball State to finish third in the division.
“Obviously, their record will show they are a very good football team and explosive on the offensive side of the ball,” Andersen said. “When you sit back and look at them and really break them down, they have a very powerful run game. They are able to run the ball consistently week in and week out, regardless of the opponent. They are able to throw the ball down the field effectively week in and week out, regardless of the opponent. They can run it, they can throw it and they are very well coached.”
While the Rockets have an explosive offense, their defense has made use of big plays to get stops. Toledo gave up nearly 300 yards a game through the air, the fourth-worst mark in Division I, but came up with 17 interceptions, including four that were returned for touchdowns. Rockets safety Jermaine Robinson accounted for four of those interceptions and two TDs as a ball hawk in the secondary.
“He finds himself in the right place a lot of times where many times a quarterback thinks he can squeeze the ball in there, but the young man reacts to the ball and breaks and plays very well within his coverages,” Andersen said of Robinson.
The Aggies expect to be at full strength for the game. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Kerwynn Williams have used the break to heal some bumps and bruises accumulated during the season. Safety McKade Brady is expected to suit up after missing the Idaho game with a broken jaw.
Also working in Utah State’s favor should be a home-field advantage of sorts. Ticket sales for the Potato Bowl are approaching the bowl attendance record of over 30,000 with many of the fans making the short drive from Cache Valley to Boise to cheer on the Aggies.
Aggies on the air
Utah State (10-2)
vs. Toledo Rockets (9-3)
Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 2:30 p.m. (MT)
Bronco Stadium (38,000) Boise, Idaho
TV: ESPN Radio: Utah State Sports Network
Kraig is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter at DesNewsKraig.