It’s what you get in this for — to play for a championship. —Utah State coach Matt Wells
LOGAN — So the regular season turned out just as the Utah State Aggies planned when they joined the Mountain West Conference.
Except for the part where they took a “learning experience” and made it into a “teaching moment.”
In their first season as members of the MWC, the Aggies claimed a spot in the conference championship game, sealing the deal with a 35-7 win over Wyoming on Saturday.
How did they do it?
By entering through the front door.
“We kicked it right in,” said running back Joey DeMartino.
If they’d known it would go this well, they’d have joined the conference years ago. Oh, wait. They tried that. But now they’re in, having finished the regular season at 8-4, 7-1 in the MWC. Next up is the conference championship game against Fresno State, then on to a bowl game.
“It’s what you get in this for — to play for a championship,” coach Matt Wells said.
Strange but true: the Aggies are a regular bowl fixture. This makes it three straight, after a 13-year absence. USU has now qualified for as many bowl games in the last three years as it did in the previous 50.
They’re in a new league and bringing the party with them.
Nobody could have predicted the way this season would unfold. Although USU was picked to finish second in the Mountain Division, that was based on Heisman candidate Chuckie Keeton at quarterback. Instead, they went the last six-plus games without him.
The season-ending knee injury brought on the introduction of freshman Darell Garretson, who hasn’t lost as a starter.
Even before Saturday’s kickoff, the Aggies were in a good place. They qualified for a bowl on Nov. 9 with a win at UNLV. That assured them a run of three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 33 years. Bowling has become a pleasurable pastime, like making fun of the Utah Utes.
The Aggies have now won 18 of their last 19 league games, covering both WAC and Mountain West results. This is a sore spot for Ute fans because the Aggies stole their playbook. While Utah did beat USU this year, 30-26, they have wobbled since joining the Pac-12.
Oddly enough, Utah jumped leagues at a seemingly perfect time. USC was on probation and the schedule was relatively easy. In that first year, the Utes came within one win of qualifying for the conference championship game.
Since then, they haven’t come within dialing distance.
Strange similarities between Utah and USU include the fact that both had their starting quarterback go down during their initial season in a new conference. Utah’s Jordan Wynn was out much of 2011, so the Utes went with Jon Hays. Meanwhile, the Aggies lost Keeton this year.
Both programs have dealt with numerous other injuries. Utah played much or all of this year without linebacker Brian Blechen, receiver Kenneth Scott and tight end Jake Murphy, as well as quarterback Travis Wilson. USU hit a two-week run starting in late September where offensive guard Kyle Whimpey, running back Joe Hill, tight end D.J. Tialavea and Keeton went down.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would have that much adversity,” Wells said.
But the Aggies showed no ill effects against the Cowboys. It was over before you could say “Yippee-ki-yay!”
The matter was resolved early when return man JoJo Natson spun, danced left-right, and darted up the middle, only to find a gap as big as all Wyoming. He didn’t stop until he had covered 64 yards for a 14-0 lead.
On an unseasonably warm day, played at an unthinkably early hour (noon), Wyoming did its best to become bowl eligible. That included military tribute uniforms, complete with camouflage shoulders and slogans on the jerseys. Thus, “Duty,” “Respect,” “Loyalty,” “Commitment,” “Service,” “Integrity,” “Leadership,” “Honor” and “Selfless” made all the plays.
Maybe the Cowboys should have used “Brees” or “Manning.”
Either way, there wasn’t much Wyoming could do. The Aggies were rolling. Apparently they took it seriously when the league office first told them to make themselves right at home.
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