It’s become an expectation for us to play in December, and I want it to always be that way. —Utah State head coach Matt Wells
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State football coach Matt Wells says this is what he thought of his team last August: “Really good vibe, with some talented players. I thought if we jell and stay healthy, we have a chance to be better than people thought.”
How hard could that be?
People thought they were ghost ship Mary Celeste.
Now they’re bowl eligible, after a one-year hiatus.
“Not everything needed to be changed,” Wells said.
By most measurements, the Aggies shouldn’t have been bowl-eligible this year. They were coming off a 1-7 conference season, 3-9 overall. Gone were all-conference tight end Wyatt Houston and three starting defensive linemen. Expectations by outsiders hovered between dim and non-existent.
At the conference’s preseason meetings, both the media and coaches picked Utah State to finish last in the Mountain West. Not simply in the division, but among all 12 teams. Yet the disrespect went deeper than that. Not a single Aggie player was named to the preseason all-conference teams (first or second), not even star cornerback Jalen Davis, who leads the MWC in interceptions (5) and total passes defended (17).
“I would say I’m very aware of where we were picked in the preseason polls,” Wells said.
It didn’t take long to get peoples’ attention. In their first conference game, they beat San Jose State 61-10. The Spartans are terrible, but still. Then came a 40-24 win over BYU. Lately the Aggies have won three of their last four, the most recent being a 38-0 dismantling of Hawaii.
These Aggies aren’t world-beaters. They’re fourth in a challenging Mountain Division that includes Boise State, Wyoming and Colorado State. Saturday they play Air Force, the No. 5 team in the division. This isn’t the Falcons’ best year (4-7) but they are rarely a pushover.
That could have been said of the Aggies, too, before last year. But the awful 2016 season was also a wake-up call. They watched other teams playing in December, viewed a lot of film, too. Wells tweaked his practices to make them more competitive, hired a new offensive coordinator and shuffled several coaching positions. Two other coaches left the program.
Then they waited for spring.
“That December was horrible,” Wells said. “I don’t need to keep talking about it. That was a feeling like none of us want to have — or quite frankly have had since I’ve been here as an assistant or head coach. It’s become an expectation for us to play in December, and I want it to always be that way.”
Wells calls it a vibe his team has — a good one. That’s not the case around Salt Lake and Provo, where the vibe feels more like a knell. BYU is out of the bowl picture and Utah is on the brink. Meanwhile, the Aggies became the first (and possibly only) local team to qualify for a bowl.
USU isn’t exceptional, having defeated no top-shelf teams. It lost to Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State, the three teams ahead in the division. The Aggies still aren’t guaranteed a bowl, though it would be unlikely to miss with six wins. The Mountain West has five bowl tie-ins, but there are currently five teams with better league records than USU, and one with the same.
Just to be safe, Wells is keeping the pedal to the metal.
“We’re not done yet,” Wells said. “We’re not done.”
That’s a good thing, because after consecutive losing seasons, a third theoretically could prove fatal, even though Wells’ contract is good through 2019. The last coach to have three consecutive losing seasons was Brent Guy, who was fired after his fourth. Dave Arslanian was fired after two losing seasons. Still, it’s unlikely any bowl coach at USU would get fired.
Either way, Wells freely admits to pressure, but invokes the standby retort, which is probably accurate: “Coaches put more pressure on themselves than fans or media can do."
But he insists he “didn’t think there was any more pressure on me this year than year one.”
Maybe not. For now, the good ship Aggie is sailing right along.