One team says its 2012 season was ruined by the unexpected loss to its rival and is spoiling for some payback. The other says that victory was no fluke, and it badly wants to prove it is more than a one-hit wonder.
Suffice it to say, the Utah-Utah State rivalry has been amped up a notch since the Aggies executed their upset of the Utes last year in Logan. It’s a good, old-fashioned grudge match for both teams.
“Everyone knows we have to step it up this year,” Utah safety Eric Rowe said.
He was speaking for the Utes, but he might as well have been speaking for both teams.
Once thought of as a pesky neighbor the Utes could conveniently schedule for an annual beatdown, the Aggies have earned the Utes’ full attention as the teams prepare for Thursday’s nationally televised opener (Fox Sports 1) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
At stake for the Utes is the opportunity to regain some dignity after last year’s debacle in which the offense had “its butt kicked,” in coach Kyle Whittingham’s estimation, as well as a chance to get the 2013 season started with a better feeling than last year.
A win is also critical if the Utes want to be bowl eligible this year. To do so, Utah must win at least six games. Projecting wins in a schedule filled with ranked Pac-12 teams is hard for a team coming off a 5-7 season, so the overall belief is the Utes must win their in-state games to at least have a chance at a .500-or-better year.
But there is more to this than long-lasting results. There are the immediate effects. Already, Utah fans are tiring of seeing the Utes struggle in the Pac-12. Can one imagine the pain and suffering that would be exacted if the Aggies came into Rice-Eccles Stadium, outplayed Dennis Erickson’s new offense and earned the first win in Salt Lake City since 1997?
That game, a 21-14 decision, came during one of former Ute coach Ron McBride’s most frustrating seasons, when the Utes went 6-5.
As for Whittingham, he acknowledges last year’s loss lingered too long. Another defeat would fester, boil and swell with all kinds of nastiness.
From the Utes’ perspective, a good whipping is in order, to set everything right in their world.
“We are taking them seriously after last year,” receiver Kenneth Scott said. “We need to start fast and punch them in the mouth. That is the main thing about it, start fast.”
The Aggies have plenty on the line too. It’s a statement game for new coach Matt Wells, who would love to show he can keep the Aggies on the upswing started by former coach and Utah assistant Gary Andersen, now at Wisconsin.
It’s also an opportunity to show off the program in front of a large television audience. And a win would be crucial to bettering the Aggies’ already-improved recruiting fortunes.
“It’s going to be a great test,” Wells said. “It’s going to be a slugfest.”
The Aggies know Rice-Eccles is going to be a hostile, rowdy place, but with 15 returning starters and the confidence of a seven-game winning streak dating back to last year, the Aggies say they are ready.
“Rivalry games definitely have a little extra magic to them,” USU defensive end Connor Williams said. “It’s definitely great, and I’m really excited to do it. Last year it was a bit of a slow start with SUU and stuff like that, but this year we’re right to it and couldn’t be happier to get it going.”
Wells predicted the game would go down to the wire. The Utes are bent on not letting that happen again.
Utah’s offense has been designed to maintain a high tempo that the Utes believe will help them put teams on their heels early. Erickson tweaked Utah’s scheme to start with the run but also attack with versatile tight ends Westlee Tonga and Jake Murphy along with the receivers.
The result should be a high-scoring offense that is simple enough for sophomore Travis Wilson to manage as he continues to grow into his quarterbacking role.
Opening with a nice, solid win would be a good sign Wilson and the offense can put Utah’s scoring troubles of the past behind them. The Utes, after all, are now members of the offense-minded Pac-12. It’s about time, their backers say, to start playing like a league member.
“We have a lot more confidence in the offense this year,” Wilson said. “Now we just have to go out and execute it.”
If they don’t, the Utes could find themselves in a heated battle just like last year. Defensive end Trevor Reilly, who admits he never gave much thought to the Aggies as a program until last year’s upset, doesn’t want his senior year starting with another loss.
As a longtime member of Utah’s program, he has experience from both perspectives — being the underdog the Aggies are this week and being the favorite with a target on the chest.
He certainly knows which outcome he favors.
“It really stings,” he said of last year’s loss when the Utes were expected to win. “It feels good to win those games, but it feels even worse to lose them. It’s a terrible, bad, bad feeling.”
It’s a feeling that can make a player hold a grudge for a year, just waiting for a rematch.
Reporter Kyle Goon contributed to this story.
Utah State at Utah
O Kickoff • Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 1
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Season opener
Series history • Utah leads 77-29-4
Last meeting • Utah State 27, Utah 20, OT (Sept. 7, 2012)
About the Utes • Utah is 88-29-1 in home openers and 5-2 against USU in home openers. … Utah leads the series 77-29-4, which is the 12th longest series in NCAA FBS history. … Backup defensive end Jason Whittingham is expected to miss the game with a hand injury.
About the Aggies • Opener marks the first for Matt Wells as the Aggies’ coach. ... Quarterback Chuckie Keeton was the 2012 Utah Collegiate Male Athlete of the Year. … He is 381 for 581 passing for 4,573 yards in his career. … The Aggies are 7-2 in their last nine road games. … USU outscored its 2012 opponents 138-9 in the first quarter.
Fox Sports 1 channels
Comcast • 265
DirecTV • 219
Dish Network • 150