As I look back on the Utah State Aggies' 2013 football season, a multitude of emotions and thoughts flood through my mind. This season truly had it all: worry, excitement, disappointment, anticipation, frustration, despair, resignation, hope, and elation. I know it's cliché, but this season was an emotional rollercoaster, carrying us up and down and back up again so frequently and so speedily that more than a few Aggie fans experienced fandom whiplash.
Before the season even began, the Aggie faithful were bubbling with enthusiasm and anticipation for a spectacular season. USU was coming off its winningest season in school history, a campaign that broke almost every record in the books. With Heisman-hyped quarterback Chuckie Keeton coming back as a junior, with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, and with a star-studded defense- a defense that rated as one of the best in the country the year before- bringing back most of its lineup, things were definitely looking up in Logan.
The only major question mark was whether new Head Coach Matt Wells could fill the huge shoes left by previous head coach Gary Andersen. In the season opener in Salt Lake against in-state rival Utah, Coach Wells answered the doubts of the cautious and the skeptics; in spite of a close Aggie loss, he showed poise, intelligence, and a field savviness that belied his lack of experience at the helm. He kept the team focused after the loss, and subsequent team obstacles, and confidently guided them through one of the most difficult paths an Aggie team has ever faced. He was rewarded for his talent and hard work by receiving the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year award, which was, without a doubt, well deserved.
After rattling off a couple of massive beat downs against Air Force and Weber State (neither a very great feat as both teams finished the season 2-10), the Aggies entered a period of emotional turmoil. A close-fought, emotionally exhausting loss to USC took much of the air out of the Aggies' sails. The grueling game was difficult to watch; and despite the fact that USC HC Lane Kiffin's team scraped out a victory, the overall feel of the game, combined with the subsequent loss to Arizona State, aided in USC's decision to sack Kiffin (who, interestingly enough, is now headed to Alabama as their new offensive coordinator).
A convincing win over old WAC foe San Jose State was just a momentary reprieve, in retrospect. The team, which had already struggled with a few difficult injuries, started to lose key players faster than Coach Andersen switched his mind about leaving Logan. Running back Joe Hill went down early in the season with a torn ACL; tight end D.J. Tialavea fractured his foot; offensive lineman Kyle Whimpey tore his patellar tendon; and everyone remembers the day Chuckie Keeton tore both his ACL and his MCL. With many of the team leaders and captains having to watch from the sideline, the depleted Aggies lost depressing games to both BYU and Boise State.
The team had started the season with title aspirations. Now they were sitting at three wins and four losses, without the leaders they had expected to take them all the way; it was depressing, and frustrating, and... and... *sigh* You know how it was; you were there watching it, too. Wondering if the offense would ever function again with Craig Harrison under center. Wondering if Joey DeMartino would be able to carry the team on his shoulders if Harrison couldn't. Wondering if the defense was as good as we thought it was, given the lackluster showings against the Cougars and Broncos. I don't know about you, but I was starting to lose hope.
Then came a ray of sunshine... the game against New Mexico was a defining moment in the season. In many ways, that game was a summary of this Aggie team: they did not give up; they stiffened their resolve; they played to win. Against one of the most dangerous rushing teams, and one of the most dangerous rushers, in college football, the Aggies dominated defensively. They didn't just slow down the New Mexico rushers, they shut them down. Aggie punter Jaron Bentrude ran for more yards than Lobo star Kasey Carrier, and had as many touchdowns. And the offense blew New Mexico out in spectacular fashion, amassing over 300 yards on the ground alone. The Aggies' statement was clear: we're not done yet.
They proved it over the remainder of the regular season, beating five straight opponents by an average score of 34-10. Because of the loss to Boise State, however, their conference destiny was outside of their control. They finished the conference spate with a 7-1 record, tied with Boise State for first place in the Mountain Division. With Boise's only loss coming to Fresno State, however, the Broncos held the tie breaker; it seemed a long shot for the Aggies to accomplish their goal of a conference championship in their first year in the MWC. Then it happened; Boise State choked, inexplicably, improbably, against San Diego State, giving the Aggies the chance they deserved- the chance to be called champions.
The conference title game was everything you could have hoped for. The Aggie defense proved its place as one of the best squads in the country, holding Derek Carr's Bulldog offense to twenty-four points- a season low- and scoring seven of the Aggies seventeen points. Darrell Garretson was proving his worth as well, throwing for 200 yards before getting knocked out in a dangerous head-to-head collision early in the fourth quarter. Once again Harrison stepped in, and found himself unequal to the task before him. The game went down to the wire, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats from start to finish. Due, in large part, to a lack of field time, Harrison was sporadic; he made thrilling passes that got you excited one moment, then missed easy open throws the next. As time wound down, Harrison threw the interception that would seal the game in the Bulldogs' favor.
As disappointing as the loss was, though, it was hard to feel anything except for pride in the Aggies' efforts. With what seemed like half the team missing, they had done the unthinkable in representing the Mountain Division in the conference title game, and they had put the fear of God in a practically untouchable Fresno State team. They had overcome obstacles that would have doomed almost anyone else, and they had done it with a passion and unity that couldn't help but be applauded and admired by fan and foe alike.
Bowl season arrived, and the Aggies found out they would be facing their second elite QB opponent in as many games when they played Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch had had a monster season, bordering on the obscene in the numbers he had produced over the course of the year. And then, as with so many others before him, he met Kyler Fackrell, Jake Doughty, Connor Williams, the Vigil Brothers (and yes, that should be capitalized), and the rest of the Aggie wrecking crew. USU crashed NIU's party, beating the Huskies in every facet of the game en route to their third ever victory against a ranked opponent. The 21-14 win was the exclamation point on an unforgettable season.
At the end of the ride, you look back... it wasn't the ride we were expecting. But it was the one we needed. It was wild, at times it was a bit scary, but it was perfect; it cemented the Aggies' place as a force to be reckoned with, and as a legitimate contender, both in the conference and on a national scale. So to Coach Wells, to the men who suited up to represent USU, and to Aggie Nation, all I can say is, thanks for the ride.