BYU fans who don’t think Utah State has a decent chance of ruining the No. 13-ranked and undefeated Cougars’ perfect season when the rivals meet for the 90th time Friday night in Logan probably need a history lesson.
The year was 2014. Behind the sensational running and passing of star quarterback Taysom Hill, the Cougars opened the season with four straight wins, blasting Connecticut 35-10 and No. 25 Texas 41-7 on the road before rolling past Houston 33-25 and Virginia 41-33 with a powerful offense and a slightly shaky defense at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
There was talk of an undefeated season for BYU as 2-2 Utah State showed up in Provo as a three-touchdown underdog that had lost its three previous games to the Cougars by scores of 27-24, 6-3 and 31-14 in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The Aggies are only one-touchdown underdogs this time around, and they have shown some promise in the early season, upsetting the Pac-12’s Washington State 26-23 in Pullman in new coach Blake Anderson’s first game, and following that with two more come-from-behind wins, 48-24 over FCS North Dakota and 49-45 over Air Force before last week’s 27-3 loss to Boise State, a contest in which they outgained the Broncos 443-435 but managed to lose by 24 points because of turnovers and horrible execution in the red zone.
Of course, the Cougars are off to another great start. They are 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history, have defeated three Power Five teams and have an offense that just found its footing with a 35-point showing against South Florida that could have easily been 50-plus if the defense had found a way to get off the field on third and fourth down against the clock-eating Bulls.
But on Oct. 3, 2014, the Aggies essentially crushed the Cougars’ hopes for a special season. Hill sustained a season-ending fractured left leg late in the second quarter with USU leading 21-14, and the Aggies went on to a 35-20 win over the No. 18 Cougars, USU’s first win in Provo since 1978.
The Aggies had snapped a 10-game BYU winning streak in 2010 with a 31-16 win in Logan, but it was on that picture-perfect Friday night in Provo that the series became a rivalry again. BYU has won only three of the last five matchups, including a 42-14 win two years ago in Logan.
Ironically, before the Aggies pulled off that historic upset, they were coming off a 21-14 overtime loss at Arkansas State — where Anderson was just beginning his seven-year stint as the Red Wolves’ head coach.
Last year’s game was supposed to be played in Provo, but was canceled due to the pandemic. BYU leads the all-time series 49-37-3 and will be going for its 50th win and attempting to hang on to the Wagon Wheel, which became the rivalry’s trophy in 1948 when USU was known as Utah Agricultural College.
It is against that backdrop that the Cougars and Aggies meet again Friday, with the Cougars hoping to avoid another devastating, season-wrecking upset and the Aggies hoping to give Anderson a win even more meaningful than the one over the red-clad WSU Cougars on Sept. 4 in his inaugural season in Logan.
“It is a difficult matchup for us,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake on Monday, noting how USU was much more competitive against Boise State than the final score suggested.
“We have a lot of respect for Utah State and their fanbase and their student section. I understand they are putting our bench in front of the student section (on the east side of the stadium), so it will be a lot of fun. We like to feed off the energy in every arena that we play in, even if it is negative energy.”
This isn’t Utah State’s Super Bowl — the Aggies are saying a Mountain West championship is their ultimate goal — but it is close. An upset might be enough to spark a field-storming.
“We are going to do our best to play the game and have fun with it and appreciate that we get to play college football with fans, whether they are ours or not,” said Sitake, whose squad will face its first truly hostile crowd in nearly two years.
“We will have representation there. I am sure of it. But at the same time, we look forward to the matchup and the difficulty of being in another team’s stadium. So that’s the fun part of the game.”
Also adding to the intrigue: BYU and USU are contracted to meet annually through the 2026 season, but with the Cougars joining the Big 12 in 2023, will this great rivalry be scrapped?
Anderson says the Aggies should have an advantage in speed and quickness and will hope to exploit that; quarterbacks Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley have seen time in all four games and both are capable runners.
Calvin Tyler Jr. has rushed for 414 yards and receiver Deven Thompkins has caught 29 passes for 514 yards and three TDs. Like Bonner, linebacker Justin Rice also followed Anderson from Arkansas State and leads the team with 40 tackles.
“They have added some new faces to the roster, but I see a lot of familiar ones as well,” Sitake said. “I have been impressed with what I have seen on film, and the way they play the game. They have a lot of explosive athletes.”
The Cougars have outscored opponents 79-23 in the first half this season, while the Aggies have been outscored 61-38 during the first 30 minutes of games.
BYU running back Lopini Katoa, who caught four passes for 129 yards in the 2019 win in Logan, said the Cougars went into that game with revenge on their minds “because of what they did to use the year before.”
Added Katoa: “We were fired up and we wanted to take the Wagon Wheel back. We had a lot of energy going into that game, and we kind of overwhelmed them.”
And got revenge, like they did in 2015 — a 51-28 win.
Because this year, as in 2014, it is the Cougars with the most to lose.