LOGAN — Once upon a time, longtime Logan residents told their grandchildren about how amazing it was to watch Aggie football.
With the likes of the great Merlin Olsen leading the defense in the early 1960s, the Aggies boasted 9-2 records in 1961 and 1962, and finished ranked in both seasons, a feat the Aggie program wouldn’t reach again for another 41 years.
Aggie football soared high in the '60s and through '70s with only four losing seasons, but then the 1980s hit, and the program fell on hard times.
After many failed attempts to enter the newly formed Western Athletic Conference, the Aggies remained independent for the majority of their prime years in the '60s and '70s until they signed on to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association — which later became the Big West Conference — in 1978.
There are many theories why Aggie football plummeted the way it did in the '80s, and longtime Aggie supporters will say neighboring universities — Utah and BYU — froze out the then-superior Aggies from joining the WAC.
Others claim the reason of the decline and for not joining the WAC was due to the failure to upgrade facilities, lack of donors, former athletic directors and the instability of conference ties.
In 1962, Utah and BYU joined the WAC, and they had their successes before leaving for the Mountain West Conference in 1999.
In its 37-year run in the WAC, Utah boasted a winning record 19 times and grabbed two conference championships. Utah began its upward trend in the '90s when it hired head coach Ron McBride, and he turned the program around right as soon as the Utes entered the MWC, and they won the inaugural MWC title.
Meanwhile, no one had a better run in the '70s through the 2000s like the BYU Cougars. After a rough stretch in the WAC’s first seasons (where the Cougars managed only four winning seasons), the Cougars hired former Aggie LaVell Edwards in 1972 to head the program, redirecting the fate of college football in the West.
So, did Utah and BYU’s success come directly from joining the WAC? Probably not, but considering where their programs were prior to joining the WAC, it makes for some speculation.
In those two-plus decades, the Aggies had winning record six times, and if you count from 1980s to 2000, they only had four winning seasons and appeared in only two bowl games. After the stretch of futility, Utah State was now on the opposite end of the spectrum, not looking down at its in-state competition, but looking up and seeing what the other schools were accomplishing.
In 2000, the Big West Conference dropped football, forcing the Aggies to look for a conference home for football while the other USU sports remained in the league. From 2000-02, the Aggies played as an independent until they joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2003, where their struggles continued. Without a winning season since 1997, the Aggies were caught in a very deep rut.
USU remained with the Sun Belt Conference for two seasons, until it was granted access into the WAC in 2005. This wasn’t the WAC of old with the likes of BYU, Utah, Arizona State and Arizona. No, this was just a feeding ground for the Boise State Broncos.
The Aggies’ first four seasons in the WAC were much like the previous 30 years full of losses. And at the end of '08 season, Aggie head coach Brent Guy was fired, and Andersen was brought over from the University of Utah’s BCS-busting team.
Prior to Andersen, the Aggies went through eight head coaches in the previous 20 years. Andersen had a pretty large hill to climb, and the first few years were much of the same. The Aggies went 4-8 in his first two seasons. Still, hopes were high going into the 2011 season the Aggies, who hadn’t had a winning season since their championship season in the Big West Conference in 1997.
There was one big problem: The defending national champion Auburn Tigers were first up on the schedule.
The Aggies relied on a solid defense, led by Bobby Wagner, and an offense being led by junior running back Robert Turbin and freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton. And not only were the Aggies competing against the Tigers, but they were winning as well. The freshman signal-caller ran up, down and around a vaunted SEC defense. Not only was the offense working, but the defense was proving it wasn't a pushover either.
Aggie fans were glued to their TVs and were surprisingly shocked with the play of their team. Could a team on a 13-year losing record streak take down the national champions in the first game of the year on the road? And they very well could have that night, if it weren’t for inexperience. A few missed opportunities down the line that cost the Aggies the game in the end, 42-38.
But in the end, there was something there that Aggie fans hadn’t seen in years: Fight ... and eventually wins.
The start of the year wasn’t very promising in going 2-5 with close losses to Auburn, BYU, Colorado State, Fresno State and La. Tech. Aggie fans were ready to pack up and call it a year, and then out of nowhere, the Aggies went on a five-game winning streak, breaking the 13-year drought of losing and sending the Aggies bowling with a 7-5 record.
The Aggies finished they year 7-6 after losing a 24-23 nail-biter to the Ohio Bobcats in the Idaho Potato Bowl.
Going into the 2012 season, Aggie fans were a little cautious. The Aggies were coming off their best season in 13 years and Boise State just left for the MWC. So someone had to win the WAC this year, why couldn’t it be them?
But this is Utah State, that wouldn’t happen, right?
After an opening victory over Southern Utah, the Aggies welcomed their Salt Lake rival to Logan. Aggie fans packed Romney Stadium, and as the game came to a close, they needed overtime to settle this battle. When Utah QB Jon Hays threw the final incompletion all of Logan erupted in a cry that seemed to say “We’re back!” Fans and students rushed Merlin Olsen Field, and a change of mindset came to the Aggie program that day. Not only could the Aggies win, but they could also be great.
After the 27-20 victory over Utah, the Aggies won 9 of their last 11 games, including seven straight, with close losses coming at Wisconsin, 16-14, and at rival BYU, 6-3.
After that, the Aggies didn’t slow down for anyone, not even the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, who also eyed the WAC title. In the second-to-last game of the regular season, the Aggies bested the Bulldogs, 48-41, in overtime to claim the WAC title — their first conference title since 1997.
But they weren’t done.
After a thumping of Idaho, the Aggie football team did something no other Aggie team had ever done to that point — eclipse the 10-win mark.
They were invited to the Idaho Potato Bowl for the second year in a row, and for the first time since the ’60-’61 teams, the Aggies went to back-to-back bowl games. Not only did they play in the bowl game, but they dominated as well, defeating the Toledo Rockets, 41-15, to bring home the first bowl trophy since 1993.
Imagine the state of caution the Aggie fans were feeling at this point. Do they really think that it can get better than an 11-2 record? Do they dare say the phrase that every non-BCS school says each year, “Can we play in January?”
With the departure of Andersen to Wisconsin, the Aggies passed the torch to a former Aggie quarterback Matt Wells.
Expectations were high going into the first game of the 2013 season against Utah. Utah State left the WAC and joined the MWC — sans BYU and Utah — and Keeton, going into his junior season, was getting Heisman consideration, and he was probably going to leave for the NFL at the end of the year. So if there was any year that they could “bust the BCS” this was going to be it, but they had to go undefeated to do so.
After a brutal fight and well-played game, the Aggies fell to the Utes, 30-26, in Salt Lake City, crushing any hope for a BCS-type season. But Utah and Utah State fans realized the spectacular play of the Keeton, and knew he was the best player on the field that day.
After another close loss to USC, the Aggies were sitting on a 3-2 record as they hosted their other in-state rival — the BYU Cougars.
Midway through the first quarter, Keeton tore his ACL and MCL. An eerie silence fell over the crowd for the remainder of the game. The Aggies fell to the Cougars, 31-14, but this was more than just one loss. This reminded the Aggies' fans of their 30 years of bad luck.
And to throw salt on an open wound, the Aggies next played against their former WAC and now MWC rival Boise State. With the QB situation in flux and the offense in shambles with players going down to season-ending injuries left and right, the Aggies competed but fell short, 34-23.
The 3-4 Aggies turned to freshman QB Darrell Garretson against New Mexico the following week. The Aggies shockingly annihilated the Lobos, 45-10.
The win perked up the ears of Aggie fans, making them think the Aggies weren't in as much trouble as they thought. Astonishingly, the Aggies went to Hawaii and had a hay-day with the Warriors, winning 47-10.
It was clear that this freshman QB was good, and the defense wasn’t only great, it was one of the best in the country.
The Aggies ended the year on a five-game winning streak to finish the regular season 8-4. With San Diego State upset win over Boise State, the Aggies sat atop the Mountain Division and were invited to the first-ever MWC Championship game where they faced the Fresno State Bulldogs, who sat pretty at 11-1.
Somehow losing five offensive starters to season-ending injuries — a feat that would normally cripple any other team — the Aggies sat in the conference championship game. Not only are they there, but they also believed they could win.
After a close fight, the Aggies fell, 24-17, but considering what they overcame that season fans were more than pleased with the outcome.
Getting invited to the Poinsettia Bowl, the Aggies’ biggest bowl game ever, they were set to play Northern Illinois (12-1). The Huskies also had eyes of becoming a BCS buster, and it also had a Heisman candidate QB at the helm.
The defense came to play that game, and the Aggies rallied around their seniors and willed themselves to a 21-14 victory over the No. 24 Huskies. It was the biggest win in program history.
The Aggies had not only gone to three straight bowl games for the first time, but they had also won two bowl games in a row, also a first.
So that takes us to the 2014 season, and the Aggie program was getting some unusual national attention. Some ESPN analysts had the Aggies on the ‘playoff predictions sleeper list.' Utah State? A national champion contender?
With the return of Keeton for his senior year, the schedule was in place to take the Aggies to January. In the opening game against Tennessee, injuries plagued the Aggies again with star linebacker Kyler Fackrell going down to a season-ending knee injury. The Aggies fell to the Volunteers, 38-7, and it was clear to fans that this wasn’t the Keeton of old.
After a victory over Idaho State, the Aggies were matched up with the Wake Forrest Demon Deacons, and it proved to be the final game for Keeton, who went down to a knee injury. Garretson returned to lead the Aggies to a 36-24 win.
With hopes still high behind Garretson, the Aggies headed to Arkansas to take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves where the Aggies fell in overtime. Sitting at 2-2, fans were disappointed in the progression of this season, and going down to play a playoff-hopeful BYU team who sat at 4-0, expectations weren’t too high.
The Aggies shocked all of Utah and the college football landscape. The Cougars were a three-touchdown favorite and ranked in the top 25 hoping to make the climb into the top 10.
The Aggies capitalized on Cougar mistakes and took an early 28-14 lead. And again a Heisman hopeful QB went down to a season-ending injury, but this time it wasn’t Keeton, it was BYU’s Taysom Hill. Much like the previous year with the Aggies, the Cougars were in shock and couldn’t regroup behind their backup QB and fell to the Aggies, 35-20.
It was the biggest victory over a ranked opponent in Aggie history.
After a victory over Air Force the following week, the Aggie program looked to hit its stride until the injury bug caught up to them again against Colorado State. Garretson went down with a season-ending injury, and the Aggies fell to the Rams, 16-13.
Led by third-string senior QB Craig Harrison, the Aggies beat the UNLV Rebels, 34-20, but that wasn’t the biggest storyline of that week because Harrison went down with a season-ending injury as well.
Aggie faithful asked, "Do we even have a fourth-string QB?" Well, luckily the Aggies had another freshman in Kent Myers, who was redshirting at the time. Myers started the next game against Hawaii where the Aggies came out on top, 35-14.
The Aggies went on a five-game winning streak after that loss to Colorado State, putting all eyes on the final showdown between Boise State. There was a three-way tie atop the Mountain Division with USU, Colorado State and Boise State. All that mattered was if the Aggies won they were in, and if they lost Colorado State was in.
Despite everything the Aggies had to go through, they sat hopeful for another conference championship appearance.
However, Boise State proved to be the dominant team and beat the Aggies, 50-19. The Broncos eventually made it to a January bowl game and won. The Aggies, sitting at 9-4, were invited to the New Mexico Bowl against UTEP. It was a fourth straight bowl game for the Aggie program. They finished on top that year, expanding their bowl winning streak to three with the 21-6 victory over the Miners.
It’s astounding to look back at the last four years and to see the growth of a program that for decades had little hope or future. Now they have a new training facility and the football stadium is being renovated this upcoming year. It even went under a name change from Romney Stadium to Maverik Stadium.
With a new season approaching, expectations are high for Aggie fans. Some college football analysts are even predicting to see the Aggies in the Fiesta Bowl this season.
Does January and Utah State mix? Well, the return of many top players, including Fackrell and Keeton (for his sixth season) gives high hopes to Aggies everywhere.
Sept. 3 can’t come fast enough.
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