San Diego • Even in the midst of sifting through hours of tape, Matt Wells still finds a little time to watch football for pleasure.
He, like millions of other football fans, tuned in for a thrilling finish of the New Mexico Bowl, when Colorado State forced two fumbles against Washington State to win. Then he saw some of the early segments of San Diego State’s domination of Buffalo in the Potato Bowl.
Utah State wants to win the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday for its own pride, of course, but it’s also a matter of keeping up the Mountain West’s reputation, the Aggie football coach said. In one year, USU has established itself as a Mountain West contender, he said, but against Northern Illinois, the Aggies get a chance to show what it means.
“Having those teams win sheds a great light on the league,” Wells said Monday morning. “We have to be able to carry that torch also.”
Year One of the Mountain West was met with great fanfare in Logan. Did the Aggies get out of it what they wanted?
Although the league itself didn’t have the year it wanted — the Mountain West was 23-30 in nonconference games — the Aggies say they are nothing but pleased. An 8-5 season that led to the Mountain West championship game saw bigger challenges and a level of exposure unprecedented for the school.
“You know the exposure is coming with the TV contracts, and how it’s a better conference and a really good non-BCS conference,” Wells said. “You know all that and I think it met those expectations. We knew that we were going to be on bigger platforms nationally and the competition was exactly how I thought it was going to be.”
The biggest step up for the Aggies was in national television appearances. Utah State had games on Fox Sports 1, ESPN, ABC and ESPNU during the regional season, and all but one game was on TV. Sports Media Watch reported that 1.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the Aggies play in the Mountain West Championship on CBS.
Being on TV by itself doesn’t necessarily win recruiting battles or create droves of new fans by itself, Wells said — but it’s a start.
“It’s just exposure, it gets you in the door,” Wells said. “It’s all about exposure and branding. You’re branding your image by getting to those big games and hopefully winning them.”
Considering how far down the level of WAC competition was, Utah State also enjoyed playing competitive teams and reigniting regional rivalries. Wins over Colorado State and UNLV were hard fought, and the Aggies brought a little flavor to a series with Wyoming by adding a trophy to the game.
Last year, Utah State played three teams in the regular season that eventually went to a bowl. This year, they’ve played seven. Having better opponents lent itself to having a better, more focused team.
“You look at all the scores of this season,” senior center Tyler Larsen said. “They were much closer games. There was much more competition out there. There’s a lot of skilled guys in the Mountain West, and I just think it reflects on us battling like we always talked about.”
Perhaps most importantly: The fans came. Winning helps, but bigger games and bigger stakes drew more Utah State fans. The Aggies set a season-best in attendance, as 23,263 fans per game filled to 25,513-capacity Romney Stadium. In the last game, of the season, traditionally a thin day for Utah State football, more than 21,000 came out.
The players hope that’s a sign that the fans are having as much fun as they are in the Mountain West.
“It’s been a blast for me,” senior wideout Travis Van Leeuwen said. “Especially with the conference championship; that’s always fun. Hopefully we can keep it up.”
Numbers to quantify USU’s move to its new conference:
Attendance • 23,263 average, a program record, with 3 sellouts
Opponents • Seven of the teams the Aggies played this year are going to bowls
Television • 12 of 13 games televised*; games on CBS, ABC, ESPN, ESPNU, CBS Sports Network, Root Sports
*USU v. Weber State was streamed online at ESPN3
Utah State vs. No. Illinois
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.