A year ago, the immediate effects of the outcome were scribbled all over Gary Andersen’s mug. It pained him and the Aggies to lose a bowl game, their first postseason game in as long as anyone could remember. It especially hurt them the way it happened, losing in the last seconds to a team, Ohio, they thought they were better than, a team they kicked all over the field during stretches of the game, a team that allowed backs Michael Smith and Robert Turbin to run free most of the night. The two combined for 259 yards.
And, still, Utah State lost by a single point.
The result was nothing new to the Ags, having suffered nearly all their losses last season in heartbreaking fashion. All but two of their games were winnable and losable in the fourth quarter. In a transforming year for USU football, that transformation had growing pains. And the final one came at the very end in Boise.
It’s different this time around.
In that moment, Andersen called the Potato Bowl a “tough, hard-fought game” and playing in it “a good learning experience.”
Said Turbin: “We knew it would come down to this. It was expected. It just didn’t happen for us.”
Linebacker Bobby Wagner said: “This hurts. Right now, I’ve got to stay strong, got to be positive, got to be a man. But yeah, this is tough. It hurts real bad.”
He found consolation in the notable truth that he and his teammates “turned the program around.” He was proud, he said, of what the Aggies had accomplished. And he should have been.
In 2012, though, Utah State has other ideas and needs for the Potato Bowl. It has had its fill of learning experiences. The program has already been turned. To properly punctuate a memorable season in which the Aggies were conference champions, won 10 games against just two losses, road losses by a total of five points, and maybe finishing one win short of being invited to a major bowl, pride or any satisfaction of any kind in defeat now will be tough to come by.
Utah State has to win its bowl game.
If Toledo walks off the field at Bronco Stadium with the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl trophy in hand Saturday evening, it will hurt the Aggies more than it helps the Rockets. It will leave business undone for Utah State. It will tarnish a remarkable season at the worst possible time — at its last call.
On account of all that, and more, the Aggies have to win to keep their positive flow, and to continue to prove themselves as something more than a cute little story.
The bowl and the game’s outcome are significant for the school, for the program, for perception, for the future, and, as Andersen pointed out, for the present. He made no specific mention of winning the game, and he didn’t want to get sentimental about the situation, but he recently did bring up a sentimental thought when he said: “… It’s the last time they will walk out of the locker room for those seniors. So there is a lot of emotion that takes place as you go through this week. But their want-to and their excitement to be together, these kids might strap another 13 games together if they had an opportunity. They love playing.”
Many of the veterans, of course, won’t have that opportunity. This will be their last game, their last chance. It’s important for them to win, but on a larger level, it’s even more important for Utah State football to win.
When you’re the 18th-ranked team in the country, when you’ve made the arduous climb from oblivion to the edge of meaning something to somebody, to a lot of somebodies who vote in polls and set the national attitude about what you are and who you are and what opportunities you might receive for excellence in the future, beating Toledo in the Potato Bowl takes on more than just a little heft. It’s not the Orange or the Fiesta Bowl, but if well-played, it could launch the Aggies toward a bigger, better end, in time. Check with the team that plays its home games in Bronco Stadium. It knows about that climb.
Opinion is great, but it — and the collective perception it puts in place — is too important in college football, where pollsters vote and committees grant ultimate postseason opportunity now and especially in the seasons ahead. If Utah State loses to Toledo, the third-place team from the MAC, it will do the Aggies no favors as they move into the Mountain West, looking for more recognition and more respect.
For all the aforementioned reasons, Andersen wants his team to be ready, and believes it will be, for Saturday’s game. “The kids are prepared,” he said. He also said he wants to “make sure they have fun.”
Ask Wagner and Turbin, there’s nothing fun about losing in Boise. The Aggies have to win.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.