On Oct. 13 of last year, Utah State football nearly made history in the backfield.
Thirteen sacks were registered by the Aggie defense in a 22-point win over San Jose State. That was just two short of the NCAA and Western Athletic Conference record set by Texas Christian in a Sept. 9, 2000, win at Nevada.
USU and SJSU play again Friday at Spartan Stadium in San Jose (7 p.m., ESPN).
The stunning defensive performances of the Aggies and Horned Frogs more than a dozen years apart are highlights of two seasons that are remarkably similar. With a stellar backfield and stout defense starring a tremendous defensive back, both teams enjoyed their best seasons at least since the Great Depression era. That included their first national rankings in 41 years. They were each led by an offensive player from eastern Texas that many have questioned how they were attracted to their respective programs.
Both teams enjoyed big wins, rivalry victories, national rankings and went bowling after winning the Western Athletic Conference championship. Consequently, more fans began to fill the stadiums as each program saw players drafted after the season ended. Their common opponent? San Jose State, ironically — each in the most pivotal contest of their season.
After each banner year, the team’s head coach that season left for the bright lights of a top BCS program. Neither eluded controversy among fans looking forward to a move from the WAC into a new conference.
For TCU, the subsequent season under a new head coach — a promoted coordinator — proved not to be as successful. But the mediocre year didn’t spell the program’s future.
How might that parallel Utah State?
See the list of parallels between the 2000 TCU and 2012 USU football teams among seven categories: coaches, stars, common opponent, big wins, bowl game and national rankings, and what the Horned Frogs’ following season might mean for the Aggies going forward.
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. email@example.com | @wilklogan
Dennis Franchione began his head coaching career at non-Football Bowl Subdivision schools in Pittsburg State and Southwest Texas State. His first Division I-A head coaching job came at the University of New Mexico, where he compiled a 33-36 record and attracted TCU after a 9-4 season in 1997. That included a WAC Mountain Division championship and an invitation to play in the Insight.com Bowl, UNM’s first bowl berth since 1961. Franchione coached linebacker Brian Urlacher, an eventual NFL Pro Bowler, in his last two seasons in Albuquerque.
Franchione lasted just three years at TCU, where he revived a sulking program. He improved every year, going 7-5, 8-4 and 10-2. He led the Horned Frogs to their first bowl victory since 1957, their first top 25 finish since 1959, and held the highest winning percentage among TCU coaches since Francis Schmidt (1929–1933), according to the College Football Data Warehouse.
Before the Horned Frogs played in the Mobile Alabama Bowl, Franchione accepted a head coaching offer by the Bowl Championship Series’ University of Alabama. “The tone and tenor of his exit from TCU remains a highly controversial subject among many TCU fans,” according to Wikipedia.
Gary Andersen began his head coaching career at non-FBS Southern Utah University in 2003. His first Division I-A head coaching job was with Utah State, where he compiled a 26-24 record and attracted the University of Wisconsin after an 11-2 season last year. That included a WAC championship and an invitation to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, USU’s second straight berth in the game after its appearance in 2011 marked its first bowl appearance since making just two since 1961. Andersen coached linebacker Bobby Wagner, a likely NFL Pro Bowler, in his second-to-last season in Logan.
Andersen lasted just four years at USU, where he revived a sunken program. He improved in each of his last three years, going 7-6 and 11-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. He led the Aggies to their second-ever bowl victory and first since 1993, their first top 25 finish since 1961, and held the highest winning percentage among USU coaches since John Ralston (1959-62).
At the end of the season — after the Aggies faced the University of Wisconsin — Andersen accepted a head coaching offer by the BCS’ Badger program. The tone and tenor of his exit remains a highly controversial subject among many USU fans and could for years to come.
LaDanian Tomlinson’s senior year was signaled by Heisman noise. The running back from Rosebud, Texas, ended the year winning the Doak Walker Award and Jim Brown Trophy and a consensus first-team All-American and led the NCAA in rushing yards and touchdowns for two straight seasons.
George Layne was a backup to Tomlinson but still drafted into the NFL.
Pundits — including rival coaches — have wondered how TCU managed to nab Tomlinson.
Quarterback Casey Printers was a star freshman in 1999 before leading TCU to another conference championship the next season. In 2000, he was an honorable mention all-conference selection.
Kerwynn Williams’ senior year was signaled by questions of whether he could lead in filling the void left behind by Robert Turbin and Michael Smith — like Tomlinson and Layne, a 1-2 punch who were both drafted into the NFL. Williams ended the year as a first-team all-conference honoree. He set USU and WAC records for most kick return yards and all-purpose yards.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton of Houston was a star freshman in 2011 before leading USU to a conference championship last season. In 2012, he was a first team all-conference selection and was named to the official Heisman Trophy Watch List after 2013 spring camp.
Pundits — including rival coaches — are wondering how USU managed to nab Keeton.
Curtis Fuller was an two-time first-team all-conference defensive back chosen in the fourth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. The previous season, the Horned Frogs' defense led the nation in total defense and points allowed. He started his college career at Tyler (Texas) Junior College before transferring to TCU.
Fuller was also a WAC all-academic selection.
Will Davis was a first-team all-conference defensive back chosen in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The previous season, the Aggies were 14th in the nation in total defense and 32nd in points allowed. He started his collegiate career at De Anza (Calif.) College before transferring to USU.
Davis was also a WAC all-academic selection.
Through seven weeks, it seemed like the ninth-ranked Horned Frogs might become the first non-BCS team to break the elite ranks six other conferences were a part of.
Then they ran into the Spartans on Nov. 4 in the Bay Area.
In a game still frequently mentioned when TCU’s 2000 season is discussed, Tomlinson was bottled. He rushed for 155 yards but didn’t find the big gains when his team most needed them.
SJSU was playing on a unique emotional high, due to the presence of Neil Parry, a walk-on sophomore whose right foot and ankle were amputated after he suffered a serious injury three weeks earlier against UTEP.
The Spartans lost five games that season.
The Aggies’ Oct. 13 sack-a-thon proved to be the difference they needed to win the outright WAC championship. After the Spartans beat Louisiana Tech in the final game of the regular season, SJSU finished second only to the Aggies in the conference standings.
USU rebounded mightily after getting nipped by BYU the previous week — and didn’t do it by incessant blitzes. Routine four- and five-man rushes continued to overwhelm the Spartan defensive line. Quarterback David Fales was bottled. That especially applied to the second half, when the Aggies registered eight tackles of junior quarterback David Fales behind the line of scrimmage. Defensive ends Connor Williams and Jordan Nielsen, freshman linebacker Kyler Fackrell — even a cornerback, Nevin Lawson — led the relentless USU attack with two sacks apiece.
“We knew they would pass a lot, so there would be a lot of opportunities for a rush,” Fackrell said. “We wanted to take advantage of their offensive line. It went pretty well. It’s big, coming off a loss like at BYU. We knew this would be a possible championship game.”
How right they were.
47-14 vs. UTEP: A moderator of frogsowar.com, a branch of the fan site SB nation, called this one “the most important TCU football game in program history.” The Horned Frogs didn’t just defeat an in-state rival. The win started a trend of more fans attending games and filling most of Amon G. Carter Stadium, HawkeyeFrog writes. It also helped TCU maintain national notoriety in finishing the season in both the AP and coaches’ polls. Apparently, buzz around Fort Worth became talk about Horned Frogs football. Since then, as the program has maintained national prominence, the city has embraced it.
Not bad for a win that featured a few thousand students rushing the field.
24-7 vs. Fresno State: A late-season win against the Bulldogs assured TCU that it could control its conference championship destiny with a home win. The Horned Frogs did just that against a team expected to be TCU’s main contender for the WAC title, but finished third when the dust settled.
27-20 (OT) vs. Utah: Fans called in to KVNU 610 after this game to call this win at least the most important USU football game in decades. The Associated Press called it “The Big Story,” posting it on bigstory.ap.org. The Aggies didn’t just defeat an in-state rival. They beat the Utes for the first time in 15 years. The win has continued a trend of more fans attending games and filling most of Romney Stadium. Three weeks later, USU enjoyed a midseason sellout — the first of its kind in years — against a cellar-dweller team (UNLV). A season-ending win over Idaho saw a higher attendance than the two previous contests. Season ticket sales are at an all-time high.
USU finished the season ranked in the AP and Coaches’ polls. Buzz around Logan has increasingly become talk about Aggie football as the city hopes the program can maintain national prominence.
The win featured a few thousand students rushing the field.
48-41 (OT) at Louisiana Tech: A late-season win against the Bulldogs assured USU it could control its conference championship destiny with a home win. The Aggies did just that against a team expected to be TCU’s main contender for the WAC title, but finished third when the dust settled.
Mobile Alabama Bowl
The level of the bowl probably wasn’t the level of TCU’s ability — and consequently, its opponent (Southern Miss) wasn’t even the champion of their non-BCS conference. However, the Horned Frogs, ranked in the top 20 in both major polls, took a holiday game close to their fans.
Tomlinson scored on multiple touchdown runs in the third quarter as the Horned Frogs took a 21-14 lead into the final stanza. But in the fourth quarter, TCU did anything but pull away. The Golden Eagles’ Jeff Kelly threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to LeRoy Handy to tie the game at 21. He then threw the game winning touchdown pass with eight seconds left, a 29-yard pass to Kenneth Johnson.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
The level of the bowl probably wasn’t the level of USU’s ability — and consequently, its opponent (Toledo) wasn’t even the champion of its non-BCS conference. However, the Aggies, ranked in the top 20 in both major polls, took a holiday game close to their fans.
Williams scored on multiple touchdown runs in the fourth quarter after the Aggies took a 13-6 lead into the final stanza. In the fourth quarter, USU pulled away. Joe Hill added a touchdown run with just more than a minute left.
The Horned Frogs finished the season ranked 18th and 21st in the Coaches and AP polls, respectively. It marked their first finish in the national rankings since 1959. TCU’s entrance into the rankings earlier in the season also marked its first time onto such lists in 41 years.
The Aggies finished the season ranked 17th and 16th in the Coaches and AP polls, respectively. It marked their first finish in the national rankings since 1961. USU’s entrance into the rankings earlier in the season also marked its first time onto such lists in 41 years.
They lost their head coach, but the Horned Frogs still carried plenty of momentum from their critical 2000 campaign. However, the 2001 record was mediocre (6-6) as the team finished in the middle of its new league (Conference USA). Too many stars proved to have moved on to the NFL (six were drafted). One did early in running back LaDanian Tomlinson.
The bowl-less season didn’t start a trend however. The promoted coordinator (Gary Patterson) showed more loyalty than his predecessor and has stayed with the program since. He has led the Horned Frogs to two BCS bowl appearances — including a Rose Bowl win. Patterson’s second season saw a conference championship, one of five in 10 years before the program moved into the BCS. The Horned Frogs have also been nationally ranked eight times since that fall.
They lost their head coach, but the Aggies still carried plenty of momentum from their critical 2012 campaign. However, the 2013 record has been mediocre (2-2) as the team focuses more on its new league (Mountain West Conference). Many stars have moved on to the NFL (five in two years — the most in that time span in recent memory). In 2011, one did early in running back Robert Turbin.
Especially in the FBS today, the Aggies may not experience a bowl-less season. But what will be USU’s trend in the next decade? Its promoted coordinator (Matt Wells) seems more loyal than his predecessor. As important as Franchione and Andersen were in reviving the TCU and USU programs, is Wells the Aggies’ Patterson?
Using the TCU program early this century as a measuring stick, regardless of what happens this season, the USU program might be seeing its best years yet.