Monson: Utah State's final act not always pretty, but almost perfect
The bowl season got off to a roaring start on Saturday about a thousand miles south of here in Albuquerque, where Arizona beat Nevada, 49-48, in the New Mexico Bowl. Exactly what happened all the way up here at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl ... zzzzzz ... zzzzzz ... we could tell you if we hadn't all slammed our foreheads on a table after falling into a coma midway through the third quarter.
Utah State, to that point, picked a sorry time to put up one of its worst showings of the 2012 season, with ESPN's cameras dialed in and the Aggies' No. 18 ranking on the line and a chance, with most of the team returning, to set itself, themselves, up all nice and tight for next year's polls.
Uh, wait ... shut the front door and hold that thought.
They played great.
No, no ... they stunk and they played great.
For the Aggies, the often-ugly but ultimately perfect Potato Bowl was a game Sigmund Freud would have loved to dissect, a bowl with a split personality. But, final call, Utah State played great when it had to, beating the third-place team from the MAC, 41-15.
After performing over the first three quarters as though they were an engine that would not turn over, even worse, as though they were far too aware of the fact that they were 10-and-a-half-point favorites here, assuming far too much for a program that hadn't won a bowl game since 1993, the Aggies snapped out of it and charged back in the game's final seven minutes. They exploded for four touchdowns over that span to blow open a game that they, just minutes before, looked destined to just plain blow.
"It was a tremendous football game," Gary Andersen said afterward. "The second half was off the charts."
And the second half of that comment was true. The first half was relative to the fact that Andersen's Aggies won. But the end result capped what the coach called "the best season ever in the history of Utah State football. When you're 11-2, it's hard to duplicate, hard to match."
Hard to argue.
On the cusp of toasting that phenomenal season, a season that had featured wins by mostly big margins and only those two defeats, by just five points, Utah State was in trouble here. It fell behind, 3-zip, then bumped and skidded through the initial 45 minutes, missing blocks, dropping passes, screwing up assignments en route to a scant 10-6 lead at the break against the 108th-ranked defense in the country. Against a compromised team to begin with, a team that was playing without its starting quarterback, without its best running back and without its best linebacker.
Short of a stellar 62-yard touchdown run by Chuckie Keeton near the end of the first quarter, USU was a burning heap. And the flames stayed hot deep into that second half. Nine minutes into the third quarter, the Rockets were on their way to tying the score at 13 when Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell intercepted a pass, halting the drive and boosting the Aggies' hope.
In the fourth, Toledo again threatened to score, going for it on fourth-and-short at the USU 9. That's when the Aggie defense stepped up and stoned the effort. But Utah State gave up a field goal when Kerwynn Williams fumbled on the next play.
He more than made up for it a few minutes later, when the Aggies came aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive. They awoke from their slumber enough to stir the rest of us, too, with that thrilling finish. Williams tore off a 63-yard TD run to jack the margin to 20-9. Then, he did it again, going 5 yards, jacking it to 27-9. And again, going 25 yards. In between, the Rockets returned a kickoff for a touchdown, but Joe Hill finished off the scoring with a touchdown run of his own. And, as the final seconds slid off the clock, Utah State football was whole again. It was the 18th-ranked team in the country, looking to move up not only in this season's final polls, but also in next year's preseason rankings.
For USU, that's the exact duality of what this game was about: proper punctuation and teeing it up.
Of the future, Andersen said: "The cupboard's definitely not bare."
Of the present, he said: "These players reached every single goal they set. That doesn't happen often in life."
It wasn't always pretty, but it was almost perfect.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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