Utah State’s football team has two choices Saturday when it faces North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl — wilt or win.
To win would be something the Aggies have gotten used to this season. They finished 10-2 overall with a 7-1 Mountain West Conference record. A loss to Boise State stopped their winning streak at 10 games, a first in school history.
Even the way Utah State wins games has been notable. The Aggies have claimed victory by an average margin of 34.4 points. They have scored at least 50 points seven times.
Or, the Aggies could wilt, as the team goes through a major upheaval in its coaching staff. Utah State had Matt Wells, the head coach, resign, an interim coach named and a permanent replacement found in Gary Andersen — all while the team prepares for the most important game of its 2018 season.
Those kinds of drastic changes are enough to send some teams on a rollercoaster ride throughout an entire season. The Aggies have been tasked with keeping their focus while new personnel are announced every few days, including Thursday when the team got a new defensive coordinator in Justin Ena, who coached the Utah Utes' linebackers this year.
But interim head coach Frank Maile has seen positive signs from his athletes and believes they will be focused Saturday.
“The No. 1 thing I told our players is they have to trust their training at the end of the day,” Maile said Monday. “Without coaches here, they understand already what’s expected of them and how to do things.”
Andersen, who previously coached at USU and was most recently with the Utes, said Tuesday that he talked to the players briefly to wish them luck against North Texas. But other than that, he won’t be involved in the bowl game and he won’t be in New Mexico, he said. Wells, the former head coach, initially asked if he could be on the sideline as a fan, but has since said he will not be in New Mexico either.
So it’s just the Aggies, with Maile on a short stint as the lead man, offensive coordinator David Yost — who will leave for Texas Tech after the bowl game — and a slew of assistants who have been elevated to full-time positions, at least for the time being.
North Texas head coach Seth Littrell, who recently agreed to sign a new contract with the university, said Tuesday that the coaching changes have no effect on how the Mean Green will prepare for the Aggies.
“I understand that they’re going through a little bit of transition, but all I can do is focus in on what’s on tape,” Littrell said. “I know they’re going to be prepared. Again, there’s a reason why they’ve been so successful in all three phases. They’re well-coached and there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll show up with a chip on their shoulder wanting to end their season the right way as well.”
Junior running back Darwin Thompson said last week that coaches have been preaching a player-led dynamic throughout the season. So regardless of who is coaching, it’s the men in pads who will dictate the outcome against the Mean Green, Thompson said.
“Players make plays,” Thompson said. “Coaches are just the cherry on top of all of it. They’re just teaching us techniques and stuff. We need them, but we don’t, in a sense.”
Utah State will find out just how true that notion is Saturday.
UTAH STATE VS NORTH TEXAS
At Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Kickoff • Saturday, noon
Watch • ESPN
Records • Utah State 10-2 (7-1 Mountain West), Boise State 9-3 (5-3 Conference USA)
Last meeting • North Texas 31, Utah State 23 (Oct. 9, 2004)
About the Mean Green • Junior QB Mason Fine averages 311.4 passing yards per game. … North Texas has lost its last two bowl games. … Rank sixth in the nation in rushing touchdowns, and fifth in most sacks and interceptions. … North Texas is riding a two-game winning streak.
About the Aggies • Utah State ranks among the top 20 teams in the nation in 19 statistical categories and leads the nation in four of those. … Playing in a bowl game for the seventh time in the last eight seasons and for the 13th time in school history. … Has a 4-8 record in bowl games. … Utah State has had a 100-yard rusher in seven of its last 11 games. … Sophomore QB Jordan Love ranks 10th in the nation in passing touchdowns. … Junior RB Darwin Thomson ranks eighth in the nation in yards per carry.