Even before the Utah State Aggies boarded their buses Thursday night, workers with wheelbarrows were stripping the sod in the middle of the Qualcomm Stadium field.
That section of turf with the Poinsettia Bowl logo was temporary, but bowl games make a lasting impression. USU’s victory over Northern Illinois in San Diego and BYU’s loss to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco served as the teams’ parting shots for 2013. And those games were very accurate depictions of their seasons.
The Aggies (9-5) showed their toughness in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 win, making a defensive stop and driving to a clinching touchdown. The Cougars (8-5) went scoreless in the second half of a 31-16 defeat Friday, unable to counter Washington’s defensive adjustments.
Each team faced an opponent named the Huskies, which is where the similarity ends. This is not about comparing USU and BYU to one another — or to Utah, which stayed home for another holiday season. Yet these bowls provided perfect tests for the Aggies and Cougars, and only one team succeeded.
Northern Illinois is a power in the Mid-American Conference, comparable to the Mountain West. Washington is in the Pac-12’s middle tier, right about the level where BYU should view itself.
In that context, the Aggies absolutely delivered and the Cougars produced their usual stuff against good competition. BYU’s offense gained 246 yards in the second quarter, but turned that production into only one touchdown (and three field goals). And when the Huskies pressured quarterback Taysom Hill and took away BYU’s successful slant pass, the Cougars had no answers.
After posting 297 total yards in the first half, BYU gained 128 yards until the meaningless final minute of the game. So these numbers will haunt the Cougars for eight months: 16, 13, 17, 13 and 16. BYU simply couldn’t score enough points in any of the team’s five losses.
All the statistics that Hill and his No. 14-ranked offense produced become rather hollow, in that frame of reference. Afterward, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was "not discouraged nor worried" about the offense’s shortcomings, he said. "It’s not even close to the same team as it was a year ago. I think we all know that."
That’s true, but the results on big stages haven’t changed significantly. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae really hoped for a better finish, but he also said recently that his offseason focus would be improving BYU’s pass protection. That issue surfaced again Friday, when Hill was sacked five times for 24 yards in losses — reducing his net rushing total to 133 yards. That’s partly why the Cougars could not exploit a Washington scheme that dared them to throw deep.
Utah State’s offensive line came through in the fourth quarter Thursday. With a six-point lead, the Aggies went 80 yards in 16 plays of an epic drive that began with coach Matt Wells’ basic instruction: "Saddle up, Joey."
Running back Joey DeMartino accounted for 53 yards on the drive, including the 1-yard touchdown that secured the victory. By then, USU had lost a sixth offensive starter this year. Considering everything the Aggies went through with injuries to quarterback Chuckie Keeton and others, Wells produced possibly the best season in school history. That’s strange to say after USU lost to Utah, BYU and Boise State, but qualifying for the championship game in a new conference and winning a bowl game against a good opponent were breakthroughs for a program that will proudly display a Poinsettia Bowl trophy.
BYU owns one of those awards, from last December. The Cougars couldn’t add to their collection, failing to earn a victory that would have ranked as their most meaningful bowl achievement in recent history. Hill and his offensive teammates were always in a hurry this season. But when it really mattered, they didn’t get anywhere.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.