Utah State’s football players posed for a team photo at midfield, staff members unfurled a division championship banner from the roof of Romney Stadium’s end-zone complex and two linemen doused coach Matt Wells with a bucket of water Saturday afternoon.
Thanksgiving weekend in Logan once evoked expressions of gratitude for basketball season, mostly. Lately, the Aggies keep staging football celebrations.
In 2011, USU achieved bowl eligibility for the first time in 14 years by beating Nevada. Last November, a win over Idaho gave the Aggies an outright Western Athletic Conference title.
Factoring in the level of competition and all of the circumstances, this latest achievement topped the others. Thanks to a 35-7 win over Wyoming, the Aggies have a claimed a division title and qualified for next Saturday’s conference championship game at Fresno State in their first season of Mountain West membership — and they’ve done it with a first-year coach and a freshman quarterback.
The Aggies believe they’re "about to make history," said senior cornerback Tay Glover-Wright, by winning consecutive titles in two leagues. They’ve already delivered five straight conference victories, ever since a loss to Boise State immediately followed quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s knee injury. Amid the danger of having their season crumble, USU’s players "put blinders on and shut out all the noise from the outside," Wells said.
They’re figured out a formula, that’s for sure. Against Wyoming, USU’s defense was overwhelming, the special teams were outstanding and the offense was adequate in another performance that demonstrated the Aggies’ persistence. Freshman quarterback Darell Garretson tossed three touchdown passes and running back Joey DeMartino, a former reserve, topped 1,000 yards for the season.
Aggie freshman linebacker Nick Vigil’s 3.5 sacks included a fourth-down stop that helped USU’s defense extend its scoreless streak to seven quarters. The Cowboys finally struck with a 60-yard touchdown pass that accounted for nearly one-third of their total production.
Afterward, Wells joked about jinxing his players by talking so much in preseason practice about handling adversity. But he’s justifiably proud of this team, with more to do. "That’s a really neat banner," he said of the division-title sign, "but I want [athletic director Scott Barnes] to buy another."
Here’s the thing about that banner in the end zone. If you look closely, there’s no asterisk at all.
Yeah, I know the disclaimers: USU needed help in the division race after losing to Boise State. In the MW’s scheduling rotation, the Aggies this year skipped Fresno State and San Diego State — the teams that beat Boise State. In this closing stretch, USU beat New Mexico, Hawaii, UNLV, Colorado State and Wyoming, not an overly impressive list of opponents.
But the fact is the Aggies finished 7-1 in conference play. They’ve dealt with season-ending injuries to their star quarterback and four other offensive starters, playing through challenges that easily could have derailed them.
Now that Fresno State no longer is unbeaten, Wells is becoming a worthy MW Coach of the Year candidate, in competition with FSU’s Tim DeRuyter and Colorado State’s Jim McElwain. Formerly an assistant to Gary Andersen, Wells kept the Aggies together, following through with everything that Andersen established in this program.
"There’s a bunch of winners in our locker room now," DeMartino said.
If anything, Saturday’s celebration was much more muted than the last couple of observances, even with a bigger crowd (21,325) than usual for Senior Day. That’s because even before the Aggies prepare for their school-record third bowl appearance in a row, they’ll play in a genuine championship game.
As Wells said, "They still want the big trophy."
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