SAN DIEGO — On the road against a top 25 team in a hostile environment, and with five offensive starters lost for the season and a third-string quarterback under center, Utah State drove down the field in pursuit of a Mountain West Conference championship.
The drive ended in an interception, and USU head coach Matt Wells, never one to make excuses, deemed the game a failure.
“We didn’t have all our guns this year. For our players to take it all the way down to the wire is a great testament of their resiliency,” Wells said. “We didn’t finish the drill and it burns in our brain, but I think it motivates us to play in this game versus Northern Illinois.”
In the big picture, however, this year’s USU football season could hardly be defined as anything but a roaring success. Before Utah State started its 2013 campaign there were plenty of things to be excited about. The team had a dynamic offense, led by quarterback Chuckie Keeton, running back Joe Hill and an offensive line that had played all of 2012 together. The defense looked stout, returning several key pieces from one of the best groups in school history.
The biggest question mark sat on the sidelines. Former head coach Gary Andersen, the savior of the program, had left for Wisconsin during the offseason and was replaced with Wells, a first-year head coach that had plenty of potential, but was unproven as the leader of an entire team. Many thought this factor could be the undoing of the Aggies and that the magic that turned the program around would head out the door with Andersen.
By the time the team was marching down the field looking to tie or win at Fresno State 2 1/2 weeks ago, almost none of the preseason strengths of the team remained. Keeton and Hill were lost for the season with knee injuries in early October. Starting offensive lineman Kevin Whimpey, wide receiver Travis Reynolds and tight end D.J. Tialavea joined Keeton and Hill in street clothes. Almost half the starting offense — 143 career games of experience — was sidelined.
Despite all the adversity, Wells’ leadership turned out to be the strength of the Aggies as he led the team to another winning season and a third straight bowl appearance. Wells, a former USU quarterback and offensive coordinator, built a team that doesn’t always light up the scoreboard, but instead makes all the crucial plays on defense and special teams. It took Wells almost two months to complete his coaching staff after getting the job in late December, but waiting for the perfect fit turned out to be one of the best calls he made all season. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the last assistant to be hired, helped keep the defense playing at a high level. Four of the final six Aggie opponents failed to score more than 10 points as the Aggies clawed out victories down the stretch.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the score is or what we hang our hat on,” Wells said. “Whether the strength of the team is the defense or the offense, the bottom line for me as a head coach is to win football games.”
Sometime after the bowl game Wells will get a chance to sit down and look back on his crazy first season as head coach and evaluate the job he has done, or take a second to reflect on the team in general. That day will have to wait for at least another few days, however. For now, he’s focused on getting one more victory and elevating the program to yet another level —a level few ever thought was possible in Logan.
“It’s just another step, another ceiling to break,” Wells said. “Winning back-to-back bowl games is taking it to another level.”
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.