Utah State football: Aggies’ seniors changed program culture
By Kyle Goon
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Nov 29 2013 02:28PM
Logan • Utah State will play for something this Saturday against Wyoming — the chance to go to the Mountain West championship.
But the way linebacker coach Kevin Clune sees it, that doesn’t change the way the team approaches the game.
Not this group of seniors.
"Even if it was a meaningless game — whether we were fully clinched or just out of it — these guys would come out and fight because that’s who they are," he said "These kids are just battlers."
The Utah State football program has pulled off a pretty startling feat. The Aggies (7-4, 6-1) are going to play for a shot at the league title in their first year in the Mountain West.
The long, steep list of adversity they’ve faced, including losing a handful of valued starters for the year, had many observers all but counting out the Aggies at midseason. But then the Aggies kept winning, working on the games they could control while crossing their fingers for other dominoes to fall into place.
The way the Aggies have competed this season gives the impression that their late-season resurrection was somehow encoded within them like DNA. But this year’s seniors, the winningest group in program history, remember that it was a learned habit, and it was anything but natural at first.
The winning record this season, the bowl eligibility, the chance for a conference title — it’s thanks to a class that changed the culture of the program to help push its rise.
"We’ve fought all the way from the dumps to the top," guard Jamie Markosian said. "It’s a testament to the guys who are in this class. It’s a special deal to be a part of it."
Twenty-two seniors are expected to take the field for pregame honors Saturday. The ceremony will recognize a group that has won 29 games over the last four years and is looking for more. They all find themselves much different men than they were entering the program: Men who are accountable to themselves, which the program lacked in the early days.
Markosian describes the culture as "completely different" when he entered as a freshman. The unity and closeness of a winning locker room wasn’t yet there.
Coach Gary Andersen strived to change the attitude with high expectations and low tolerance for not meeting them.
Connor Williams was late to his first meeting freshman year. He got chewed out by Andersen. Then he really started to pay the consequences.
"The first day of training camp, I had to get up a 6 a.m. for punishment before practice," Williams recalled. "I did bear crawls, threw sandbags, pushed plates. I had all that, and then a two-a-day. During the moment, that wasn’t fun; now it’s pretty hilarious."
The Aggies only smile now because something happened: The lessons took. They started taking their responsibilities more seriously. They adopted accountability for themselves behind the mantra, "Players make plays."
Only one thing was missing: Winning. The Aggies won four games in each of the first two seasons under Andersen, and started 2-5 in 2011. Having the habits of a winning team but still losing was more frustrating than ever before.
"There were so many times when we were like, ‘God, why are we losing? We’re not that bad,’" Markosian said. "You just don’t understand why you’re not winning games. And then you start winning games and learning how to win. And it’s totally different than the games before."
The close games started to turn after Utah State’s 35-31 win at Hawaii, and the Aggies finished out the year 4-1. The team got on a roll, and it never really got off.
This season’s wins bear the mark of the senior group. They’ve lost close games, but they’ve pulled themselves through others. After Keeton, Joe Hill, Kevin Whimpey and D.J. Tialavea went out for the year, there was no talk of excuses, only talk of being 1-0 that week.
The Aggies have a number of underclassmen who have contributed and stepped into roles occupied by seniors. But it’s also clear that without the seniors, they would have been lost in how to come through against teams such as UNLV or Colorado State late in the year.
"I feel that when we leave it for the younger guys they know how much we’ve sacrificed," Joey DeMartino said. "They see the new buildings and stuff that previous classes and us have helped get to this school. I think we set a good precedent for them to keep fighting and working hard. That’s what this program is about, being blue-collared athletes."
Ultimately, more than the wins they took a hand in, the Aggies’ senior class legacy may simply be how soon their record gets broken. While Utah State won a WAC title with the group and is in the hunt for another, the senior class has set up the program for more such races in the future.
Winning is no longer a goal at Utah State, it’s expected. And if next year’s senior class breaks the wins record, this one will have had a huge hand in elevating them to that level.
"It’s not as if we had a tremendous group of superstars, although we’ll have some guys go to the league," Clune said. "It was just a group of guys who worked their butts off, went through all the hard times, all the close games, all the work that went with it. They found their success, and it’s been a fun ride."