A year and one week ago, a Utah State football program in turmoil hired a 51-year-old head coach coming west from Arkansas State.
As is the case with most coaching hires, the announcement that Blake Anderson would be taking over in Logan brought with it the requisite hope that comes with any new beginning. But given the situation he was inheriting, the pressure to perform quickly was tempered. The Aggies, after all, were coming off a disastrous 1-5 season, and most believed returning the program to its former luster would take time.
Slowly but surely, however, and day by day, the Aggies began to believe. And after Saturday’s 24-13 LA Bowl victory over Oregon State, a victory that gave Utah State 11 wins on the season, the Aggies were buttoning up the greatest season in program history.
Who woulda thunk it?
Though it marked the third time the program has finished with 11 wins, it was this year’s squad that took home the elusive Mountain West title — something that even the highly touted 2018 squad couldn’t accomplish.
The title led to the high-profile bowl game, which the Aggies won in convincing fashion with their third-string quarterback, Cooper Legas, playing most of the game.
Anderson, though heavily biased, offered his thoughts on where his team stood in the university’s history book during his LA Bowl postgame press conference.
“It has been an unbelievable ride,” Anderson said. “Start with a Power Five win, finish with a Power Five win, conference title, 11-3. The best season in Utah State history, and I could not be more proud of the guys that get to leave that legacy behind.”
The historic season came out of nowhere. Not even Anderson saw the season panning out the way it did.
“About halftime of the championship game, to be honest with you,” Anderson said when asked when he knew this team would be 11-win conference champions.
“I think if you set some line in the sand that we’ve got to reach, especially not knowing the league and really not knowing what this team is capable of, I think you’re setting them up for failure. We really, on a daily basis, took the approach to be the best we can be and little by little we gained confidence from big wins, road wins and difficult wins.”
“All the hard work pays off, everything that nobody sees except us. It’s crazy how all the 6 a.m. practices, how it all paid off.” — Utah State receiver Deven Thompkins
Picked in the preseason to finish second-to-last in their division, the Aggies knew nobody outside of their team believed in them and they fed off of it.
Finishing a school record 8-0 away from Maverik Stadium shows exactly how the players were wired. They played at their best as underdogs and when they were the only ones in their corner.
They closed their ears to the outside noise, put their heads down and got to work. That work translated to consistent and gradual improvement each week, culminating in the team playing its best ball at the end of the year.
“The whole team has literally gotten better each week,” senior defensive end Nick Heninger said. “We focused on the small things because the details matter. If you want to accomplish great things, you have to do the small details correctly, and just having that philosophy — this team truly got better and look at us now.”
The high-tempo offense got more efficient, the defense patched up its holes and the finished product is a team that will inevitably end the season ranked — a stark contrast to how last season ended.
Senior receiver Deven Thompkins, who, personally, had one of the best seasons by a receiver in Utah State history, said the last year has been unforgettable for both him and his teammates.
“This whole season has been a dream for me, just the way that everything has unfolded just looking back to where we were a year ago,” Thompkins said. “I was sitting on my back porch at home with my daughter and my son (this time last year) and now I am sitting up here on this podium with my daughter, so it just means everything to me.
“All the hard work pays off, everything that nobody sees except us. It’s crazy how all the 6 a.m. practices, how it all paid off.”
Last year, the biggest concern for Aggie fans was where their next win was going to come from. Now, almost suddenly, the utmost concern is that a bigger school may set its sights on Anderson after the job he’s done in year one.
Definitely a better problem to have.
However long or short Anderson’s tenure in Logan may last, he has set the bar pretty high.
Eleven-win seasons very likely won’t be the norm for this program going forward, but it seems that more successful, winning football seasons are a reasonable expectation — a complete 180-degree turn from where the program was before the season started.
Anderson said that this season has laid a foundation of success that will propel the team going forward.
“We’re just getting started. As we build and develop (recruiting), who knows what we’re capable of. This is just the beginning. … It clearly shows that some special things can happen in Logan, Utah and in the Mountain West.”