I'm sure it will hit me at some point on game day. Like I tell the players, if you prepare the right way and train the right way, you're going to have butterflies of anxiousness, but not nervousness. … As long as you've prepared and trained right, you'll be ready for the game and you'll be able to react to all situations. —Matt Wells, USU head football coach
LOGAN — In two and a half short years in Logan, a lot has changed for Matt Wells.
After spending 14 years as a position coach at Navy, Tulsa, Louisville and New Mexico, Wells returned to Utah State, his alma mater, to coach quarterbacks for Gary Andersen.
Wells remembers his first game back at Utah State well. The Aggies were on the road at Auburn, and Wells had only one thing on his mind: making sure his freshman quarterback survived going up against the defending national champions.
“Before, I was worried about making sure we picked up the pressure and coaching Chuckie Keeton. There is a little bit more on my plate now,” Wells said.
Since then, it has been a steady rise for Wells and the Aggie football program. In 2012, Wells got his first shot at the offensive coordinator job, and USU responded by scoring nearly 35 points a contest. When Andersen left for Wisconsin last winter, he did it with a clear conscience knowing that Wells would be the man in charge and would continue to build the program he helped resurrect.
Now as the head man, just two seasons after arriving at Utah State, Wells gets to start just like his mentor Andersen did, on the road against rival Utah.
No pressure, just 45,000 screaming fans in red rooting against you with in-state supremacy on the line.
“It will be a major challenge for us and is something we look forward to going into Thursday night,” Wells said.
If there is anyone outside the program who can help Wells and the Aggies beat the Utes, it will be their former coach. Andersen was an assistant with Utah from 1997 to 2002 and again from 2004 to 2008 before taking the Utah State job. Not only does Andersen have experience on the Utah sidelines, he also had as much success with in-state matchups as any modern Utah State coach.
In his first game as an Aggie, USU was competitive with the No. 19-ranked Utes before bowing out in a 35-17 loss. When the series started up again in 2012, the Aggies got their first win over Utah since 1997 in a 27-20 overtime thriller, a game many point to as the day the Utah State program reached another level.
Wells and Andersen still keep in touch often, even during the hustle and bustle of football season. The two talk on the phone most weeks and exchanged texts over the weekend. They also plan to have a longer talk on the phone sometime this week as the game approaches.
Wells wouldn’t confirm or deny that Andersen had shared any extra tips to beat the Utes in their conversations over the last few weeks, but that doesn't mean the two haven't had the discussion before.
“He gave me a lot of advice last year on how to beat Utah, and I remember what he said,” Wells said with a smile.
Wells hasn’t had a lot of time to stop and ponder what it means to be on the precipice of coaching his first game. From the moment he was hired, it has been a non-stop whirlwind for the first-year coach. There was staff to hire, community appearances to make, training camps to run and film to break down. Now Wells is just a day away from achieving a dream of being the head coach on game day.
“I'm sure it will hit me at some point on game day,” Wells said. “Like I tell the players, if you prepare the right way and train the right way, you're going to have butterflies of anxiousness, but not nervousness. As long as you've prepared and trained right, you'll be ready for the game and you'll be able to react to all situations.”
The title, the office and the responsibilities have changed for Wells since that early afternoon in September in Auburn, but a lot is still the same. He is still worried about keeping the pressure off his star quarterback and putting points on the board. Now there are just a few extra things occupy his mind, like getting his defense to shut down Dennis Erickson's new-look Ute offense and making sure everyone boards the bus on time. In the end though, he's still the coach looking to get a victory on the road.
“I'm still doing a lot of coaching. Before, all I was worried about was one player," Wells said. "Now I'm worried about 74."
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.