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Brad Rock: Utah State hopes to avoid copying 2010 Utes

SAN DIEGO — The Utah State Aggies will enter Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl looking much like Michael Strahan’s smile. They have plenty of attitude and appeal, but some serious gaps.

For instance, there’s the absence of tight end D.J. Tialavea, who seemingly has been out with a foot fracture since Old Main was new. Offensive lineman Kyle Whimpey was gone with a knee injury before the summer temperatures had cooled. Running back Joe Hill bowed out with a torn anterior cruciate in September. Wide receiver Travis Reynolds, too, is down for the count.

Then there’s quarterback Chuckie Keeton, the Heisman candidate who was injured in the midseason game against BYU.

Even the new starting quarterback, Darell Garretson, took a scary hit in the MWC championship game. Coaches say he should be fine for Thursday’s kickoff. Still, it makes a person wonder what the Aggies are doing in a bowl game anyway.

They’re here and expecting to win, despite the absence of five offensive starters.

“It’s an amazing thing, I don’t know how else to say it,” said USU coach Matt Wells. “The amazing show of resilience with these kids, with all these injuries and the adversity we’ve had. Yet down the stretch we played a team knocking on the BCS door (Fresno State) at their home field in the championship game.

“We’re by no means satisfied. We failed. We did not win it. That will leave a bitter taste in our mouths all off-season, so there’s one reason to want to finish the right way this week.”

Another reason: everyone loves stories about climbing mountains.

Wells spent his bowl week balancing confidence with respect. He had nothing but praise for record-setting Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. At the same time, Wells’ confidence has been high. Isn’t it always? He’s the type who walks into a tiger cage with a bag of Meow Mix. Nice kitty.

He uses “adversity” and “opportunity” interchangeably.

So when Keeton went down in the sixth game, Wells set his jaw. When the Aggies stalled against Boise State, sidetracking their conference title hopes, he refocused. USU’s loss in the conference championship game to Fresno State was, for Wells, a good reason to start checking accommodations in San Diego.

Such confidence is good, but occasionally fruitless.

All the Aggies can hope is they aren’t the 2010 Utes.

Sad but true: adversity stories don’t always end in glory.

The scary part for USU on Thursday is that it’s not unlike the Utah team that got drubbed 26-3 by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. An injured first-team quarterback, a strong defense and a nationally ranked opponent are commonalities.

You might say this story has aired before — on a different channel.

Although Utah was ranked No. 20 nationally that December night three years ago, it probably didn’t belong there. Quarterback Jordan Wynn had missed two games with a thumb injury earlier in the season, but after leading the Utes past BYU in late November, he was voided by a shoulder injury.

That necessitated the Utes going with backup Terrance Cain, who was 9-1 as a starter prior to the bowl. Still, there was a reason the Utes had settled on Wynn. Cain wasn’t a great passer, even though he was 51-72 for 610 yards that season. Utah had set up its offense on Wynn’s skill set, not Cain’s.

Though he had done well in starting wins over UNLV and New Mexico that season, now Cain was facing the No. 10-ranked Broncos, who were No. 2 nationally in total defense. BSU held Utah to just 198 total yards. After taking a 3-0 lead, the Utes gave up 26 consecutive points.

The scoring woes couldn’t all be blamed on Cain. Utah’s line allowed four sacks and the run game never showed.

Still, the Aggies face a semi-similar situation on Thursday. Garretson is a better touch passer than Cain, but he’s also less experienced. Meanwhile, like Boise in 2010, NIU lost just one game, at season’s end, dashing hopes of a BCS bowl.

As with Utah that year, Utah State’s 2013 hopes rest on its defense. It will take patience and smarts to contain Lynch. The Aggies are working on it. Their trip to San Diego got delayed four hours due to weather and administrative hang-ups. They traveled in two groups, with the second not arriving until 3:30 a.m.

Yet the next day Wells was as optimistic as the weather.

“There is a sense of urgency,” he said, “so I like where we’re at right now.”

Where they’re at is precariously close to where the Utes were three years ago.

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