Kragthorpe: Utah State savors long-awaited WAC title
Even if Utah State's greatest football achievement since the Merlin Olsen era was secured after only about 17 minutes of football Saturday afternoon, this production actually was 50 years in the making.
More than a half-hour after their 45-9 victory over Idaho, the Aggies posed for a photo in the end zone with a Western Athletic Conference trophy and some historic sense of what they'd done.
"We definitely know we did something big," said USU cornerback Will Davis, whose interception return for a touchdown gave USU a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, "but I don't think the significance of it has hit."
With shadows blanketing the field as the trophy was presented and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl invitation was extended, the late-November sun was shining on Romney Stadium's south plaza where Olsen's statue stands.
The irony of all this is that because of the success of Olsen's teams, USU apparently represented too much of a threat to be included in the original WAC in 1962. That's when BYU, Utah and four other schools created the new league, leaving USU behind.
WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd cited 50 previous WAC champs, "none more deserving" than USU, which finally joined the league in 2005.
So this championship becomes a perfect ending for the Aggies in the WAC. Over the years, 26 schools have played football in this conference, and USU is the last champion as the WAC gives up its sponsorship of the sport.
The reality is that USU was not ready for a moment like this even as of several years ago, when support for the program took hold.
"If we win football games," former athletic director Randy Spetman once said, "the world is going to change here."
Six years after that groundbreaking ceremony for the school's end-zone complex, the scene absolutely was different Saturday. USU president Stan Albrecht was holding a game ball, athletic director Scott Barnes was accepting another bowl invitation and coach Gary Andersen was wearing a towel around his neck, recovering from a celebratory bath on the sideline.
The convergence of the administration's backing and Barnes' hiring of Andersen four years ago created this opportunity for USU, and the timing of the resurgence is good. The moves of Fresno State and Nevada to the Mountain West where USU is headed next season certainly made the road easier.
Having said that, there should be no devaluing USU's title. Louisiana Tech was ranked No. 19 when the Aggies (10-2) won on the road last weekend, and you can ask BYU whether San Jose State is any good.
Saturday's victory was pretty much a formality, right down to Andersen's tributes to Keeton, running back Kerwynn Williams and receiver Matt Austin, who each exited on consecutive plays during a fourth-quarter drive. Andersen acknowledged borrowing a basketball tradition even if USU no longer is just a basketball school.
"It's fun," Andersen said, "to be able to let them walk off as champions."
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