Kragthorpe: USU’s near-miss on Orange Bowl berth won’t haunt them
College Football • A kick here or there would have propelled Aggies into a BCS game
Published: December 10, 2012 01:29PM
Updated: December 12, 2012 04:34PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah State senior WR Matt Austin celebrates with his head coach Gary Andersen after the win over Idaho on Nov. 24, 2012 to become champions of the WAC.

Logan • On the late-November afternoon when Utah State’s football team produced a school-record 10th victory, Aggie kicker Josh Thompson played his role by trotting onto the field and picking up the tee, after a teammate kicked off.

This season of celebration could have become much grander for Thompson and the No. 18 Aggies. Instead of playing unranked Toledo in Saturday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, they could be preparing for the Orange Bowl vs. No. 13 Florida State on New Year’s Day in Miami (a projected $18 million per team).

Asked if he ponders such a possibility, USU athletic director Scott Barnes said, “That’ll kill you if you think about that too much.”

USU coach Gary Andersen laughed and said, “I can’t say I haven’t thought about it.”

They prefer to dwell on the achievements of a 10-2 season, and Andersen pointed out how the Aggies needed overtime to beat Utah and Louisiana Tech. Those wins offset losses by a total of five points at Wisconsin and BYU — where Thompson missed winning or tying field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter.

The circumstances are different enough to keep Thompson from becoming the USU equivalent of Kyle Brotzman. He’s the former Boise State kicker who was vilified after his missed field goals in regulation and overtime at Nevada in the next-to-last game of 2010 cost the Broncos a Rose Bowl berth.

Thompson’s misses came in mid-September and early October, long before any genuine BCS prospects could surface for USU. And unlike Boise State’s fans, who had attended two Fiesta Bowls in the previous four years, USU’s backers lack the sense of entitlement that comes with following a perennially successful program.

“People for so long have grasped for positive things,” said Ross Peterson, a USU historian.

Cache Valley pragmatism also makes folks wonder how the school could have sold the required 17,500 tickets to the Orange Bowl in Miami — greatly reducing the profit margin for a participating team, besides revenue-sharing formulas — when this season’s average attendance at Romney Stadium barely topped 20,000.

But that’s not to say there’s universal forgiveness of Thompson, a Logan High School product. Andersen shielded Thompson from an interview request last week, much as Boise State once protected Brotzman, who now kicks for the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. Fans are now recognizing that USU would have replaced Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl with perhaps only one more victory ­— such as beating Wisconsin with a 37-yard field goal in the final six seconds, instead of losing 16-14.

“The kick by Thompson is on the way and it’s … He missed it. He missed it wide to the right. And Wisconsin will survive.” — Al Lewis, Aggie Radio Network, Sept. 15.

Thompson, who successfully maintained USU’s kicking job in 2011, began this season behind Brock Warren. After Warren missed an extra point against Utah, Thompson was promoted for the Wisconsin game and kicked through the BYU game Oct. 5, when he made a 26-yard field goal but missed a 38-yard attempt (wide left) with 7:47 remaining in a 6-3 loss. Thompson was replaced by Nick Diaz the following week and has not kicked in a game since then.

As it turns out, even without a hypothetical overtime win over BYU, the Aggies probably would have reached the Orange Bowl with an 11-1 record. Northern Illinois (11-1) got there because of a provision that gives an automatic BCS berth to the highest-ranked team from outside the six power conferences — if it’s in the top 16 of the BCS standings and is ahead of a champion from one of those leagues. No. 15 NIU topped both the Big East (Louisville) and Big Ten (Wisconsin) winners.

USU finished No. 22 in the standings, so it is reasonable to assume that with an earlier entry into the rankings and the value of a win over Wisconsin, the Aggies would have finished ahead of NIU and gone to Miami.

But they’re back in Boise, which is more accessible to their fans. The Aggie faithful still can savor two landmark victories in 2012.

“Hays throws it for Christopher and it is knocked away and the ballgame is over and Utah State beats Utah! Another mountain climbed for Gary Andersen.” — Lewis, Sept. 7.

Will Davis’ tight coverage of DeVonte Christopher on Jon Hays’ fourth-down pass in overtime, after the Aggies had scored on their possession, gave USU a 27-20 win, its first victory over Utah in 15 years.

And then the Aggies visited a Louisiana Tech team that was ranked No. 19 and in BCS contention, with the WAC championship on the line.

“It’s a run by Holley and the Aggies stop him! The Aggies stop him and win the game in overtime!” — Lewis, Nov. 17.

Again, after Kerwynn Williams scored what proved to be the winning touchdown, the Aggie defense stymied Tech’s possession on a fourth-and-3 play, with linebacker Jake Doughty making the tackle.

Those finishes are reminders that the Aggies needed some clutch performances to win 10 games, so asking for 11 or 12 victories is somewhat greedy. But if the Aggies beat Toledo as they’re favored to do, many USU fans will find it impossible to watch the Orange Bowl without wondering how they would have done against Florida State.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt