It got to a point last season where despair was plastered on the faces of nearly each and every person associated with the Utah State football program.
It was visible in interviews and interactions with players and coaches. At no point did they admit out loud that they felt it, but it was there all the same.
Though the Aggies never stopped competing during the 1-5 campaign — the program’s worst season since 2007 — the mental strain of playing during the pandemic and floundering against nearly every single opponent wore on them.
Throw in the firing of their head coach, the dismissal of their starting quarterback and purported discrimination at the university, and well, the Aggies were battered down to the point where it was a relief when the season came to an end.
“Last year was hard,” senior wide receiver Jordan Nathan said. “It hard on everybody. I’d go home and sit at night and just think, ‘What more can I do?’ It was horrible. It was the lowest I’ve been in a while mentally. It was mentally draining.”
Fast forward to the scene inside Martin Stadium Saturday night in Pullman, Washington, and the Aggies were unrecognizable. Trailing the Washington State Cougars 23-11 early in the fourth quarter, Utah State scored 15 unanswered points to pull off the upset victory, the program’s first road win over a Power 5 opponent since 1971.
Look into the faces of Aggie players afterward, most of whom were in Logan last year, and despair was not to be found. Belief had replaced it.
Now, it is only one game, and one of the golden rules of college football is to avoid any and all overreactions to Week 1, but these are not the same Aggies, and that isn’t an overreaction.
Since Blake Anderson and his staff arrived in town last winter, the USU program has undergone a major transformation that had the Aggies believing not only that could they beat Washington State, but that they probably should beat the Cougars.
So they did.
“What do you say?,” Anderson said after the win. “Really proud of the guys, but not surprised, to be honest with you. Not surprised at all. We talked all week about what our formula was to win this game.
“We knew if they would just trust in the plan and keep it close at halftime, stay within reach, our conditioning and the way we operate and prepare could lead us to a win. That is exactly what you saw. We did not play our best football. We made some mistakes and honestly could have lost that football game, but we made plays when we absolutely had to.”
So what is different? What has Anderson done in nine months time to turn around the program, because it has been nothing less than a major turnaround.
Well, he credits the players.
“I didn’t play a down. The kids deserve the credit. I just go along for the ride,” Anderson said. “... I think what we’ve got is a really close knit group of guys who bought in when they didn’t really have to.
“They could have made this really really tough on me and the staff, but they’ve bought in. We’ve built really really close relationships really quickly and could not be more proud.”
As for his players, they believe Anderson and his staff have made all the difference.
“Coach A has played a really really big factor and having Coach (Paul) Jackson in the weight room,” wide receiver Deven Thompkins said. “He (Jackson) has made us all tougher and have a killer instinct mindset. Ever since the staff came in, they changed all the players’ mindsets. He (Anderson) built the formula and we just followed through with it.”
The formula is simple enough. Anderson and company have preached selflessness, toughness and accountability, as well as the need for daily improvement.
Anderson has never promised his team that those things would lead to wins exactly, but the victory over Washington State should serve as a major building block to all that Anderson hopes the Utah State program will become.
“I’ve been telling them that there are no guarantees that if you do all of those things that you are going to win,” Anderson said, “but this solidifies that what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it can have some really fun results.
“It can only fuel the fire of where we are headed in recruiting, in the community and with the fanbase, but mainly for these guys. Now we get them to push even harder because the results can only get better. This is a memory that they’ll never forget and something I’ll never forget, but hopefully it is just the first step forward.”
Considering where the Aggies were less than a year ago, that first step was a big one. Where the Aggies will go from here, that is what the rest of the season is about, but the Blake Anderson era is off to as good of a start as could be asked for.