Will Thursday’s BYU-Utah State showdown in Provo mark final Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel?
No. 19 Cougars host 1-3 Aggies at LaVell Edwards Stadium in the 91st meeting between the instate rivals, but BYU’s entrance into the Big 12 next year could end the series
One of the oldest, quirkiest and certainly heaviest rivalry trophies in all of college football currently sits in the lobby of the BYU football offices on the second floor of the Provo school’s Student Athlete Building.
The Old Wagon Wheel, bedecked with little metallic plaques signifying wins, and losses, since 1948 in the Cougars’ 100-year-old football series with Utah State, will be hauled a couple blocks north to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Thursday afternoon, a couple hours before the in-state rivals are scheduled to meet for the 91st time.
“Rivalry football is what college football is all about, in my opinion. I absolutely love it. I hate to see it go. I understand why it is. You would like to think it will come back around at some point and we will be able to get it sorted out where this game comes back in the future.” — Utah State football coach Blake Anderson
The 66th Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel — the pioneer era relic didn’t become a part of the rivalry until 1948 — kicks off at 6 p.m.
Will the trophy remain in Provo, where it has been since the Cougars won 42-14 in Logan in 2019? Or will the 1-3 Aggies rise up as they did in 2014 when they were also heavy underdogs and earn the right to transport it back to Logan?
Those are important questions, but the bigger one as it relates to the rivalry that was mostly dominated by Utah State until 1974 but in the past 50 or so years has swung BYU’s way, is this: Will Thursday’s nationally televised showdown (ESPN) mark the last time these longtime rivals meet?
In other words, whoever wins on Sept. 29, 2022, is going to have possession of the Old Wagon Wheel for quite some time, it appears.
Of course, the rivalry robber in this case is No. 19-ranked BYU’s move to the Big 12 in 2023; contracted games from 2023-26 were canceled earlier this year, as BYU invoked a clause that allowed it to get out of the games if it were to join a Power Five conference.
Coaches and players from both sides of the rivalry expressed dismay throughout the summer and again on Monday in news conferences in Logan and Provo that the series is ending, but as BYU coach Kalani Sitake put it, the decision to cancel future games is out of their hands.
“Yeah, of course,” Sitake said, when asked if he wants the games back on the schedule. “I mean, I love the in-state games. We went up there to Logan last year (a 34-20 BYU win) and that was a cool environment, man. You see how much the fans love it, and love this game.
“But I am not the guy that does the scheduling. That is on our administration. … I don’t have the control of that.”
Next year, BYU’s three nonconference opponents will be Sam Houston State, Southern Utah and Arkansas. Sam Houston State replaced Tennessee on the home schedule after the Volunteers bailed on BYU and bought out the game for $2 million.
“Personally, yeah, I will miss it,” Sitake said. “I played in this, I remember being a fan cheering for BYU in these rivalry games, especially games against Utah State. I played in it, and now I get to coach in it, so it has been a lot of fun.”
The rivalry is much newer to Utah State coach Blake Anderson, who was hired in December 2020 to replace the man who restored USU’s return to competitiveness in the series in his first stint in Logan, Gary Andersen. Anderson got his first taste of it last year in Logan.
“I hate the fact that this is the last time we are going to play it. That game was phenomenal. The environment. That entire evening was unreal. So, Thursday night game, in Provo, ESPN, it will be fun,” Anderson told KUTV.com at July’s Mountain West football media day.
“Hopefully we are going to find a way to win this one, send them off on their way, thinking about how they got to find a way to come back and get at us,” Anderson said. “But I found out real quickly that it is a great game. We had got close late, and it fell apart on us the last two minutes of the game. But I love that game, love the rivalry, hopefully we will find a way to get that thing coming back around.”
Can the Aggies spring the upset as 24-point underdogs? Well, they’ve done it before. In 2014, BYU was 4-0, hadn’t lost to USU in Provo since 1978, and was ranked 18th in the country. The Cougars were three-touchdown favorites.
But Heisman candidate quarterback Taysom Hill suffered a fractured leg in the first half after being tackled by USU safety Brian Suite in a cruel twist of irony. Suite’s tackle had also sidelined Hill for the season with a knee injury in 2012, a 6-3 BYU win.
Utah State went on to a 35-20 win in 2014 as Darell Garretson, filling in for injured star QB Chuckie Keeton, threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
“Rivalry football is what college football is all about, in my opinion. I absolutely love it. I hate to see it go. I understand why it is. You would like to think it will come back around at some point and we will be able to get it sorted out where this game comes back in the future,” Anderson said. “But for awhile, this is going to be the last one, and I can’t think of a better time to play our best ball to get a win.”
Utah State has won three of the last seven matchups, including two in a row in 2017 and 2018, but since LaVell Edwards took over BYU’s program in 1972, the Cougars are 33-10 against the Aggies.
“I have tons of respect for Utah State, their fans, and definitely for their football program, for their coaches and their players,” Sitake said Monday. “Those guys work really hard. You can see they are well-coached. You can see the scheme works really well for them. They are always dangerous, so we need to play well. I have played in these types of games before. I know they are going to bring their best.”
BYU defensive back Jakob Robinson has seen both sides of the rivalry. The Orem High product played for the Aggies in 2020, the year the rivals didn’t meet because of the pandemic. He transferred to BYU before the 2021 season.
“It will be sad that it is going away,” Robinson said. “But we will always have Utah, too, so instate rivalries are always fun. … I feel like while I was up there (in Logan) we would always talk about (BYU), making sure they were doing good.”
Robinson said USU will be extra motivated because BYU canceled future games.
“And we never want to lose the wheel,” he said.
BYU receiver Brayden Cosper, from South Jordan, said the Aggies are “absolutely” a BYU rival.
“They are a talented team. They won the Mountain West last year. I think it is a great in-state rivalry,” Cosper said. “They are going to come in with a lot of energy regardless of how they have performed. We respect them a lot. I think it is a great rivalry, and it is fun for the fans as well. … The Wagon Wheel is a cool thing. It is always nice to take that home. So yeah, it is sad (that the series is ending).”
BYU defensive end Tyler Batty, from Payson, said he has mixed feelings over the end of the rivalry for the time being.
“Honestly, I am a little bit conflicted. You are bummed because you may not play them for a few years. At the same time we are going into a new era where we get to play a lot of new teams in the Big 12, and that is really exciting,” Batty said.
Here’s a closer look at three other times the Aggies broke through with improbable wins in the rivalry:
Oct. 30, 1993
Utah State 58, BYU 56: BYU defeated USU 10 straight times between 1983 and 1992, but the Aggies turned the tables the day before Halloween in the highest-scoring game in rivalry history. BYU quarterback John Walsh threw for 619 yards and five touchdowns, but USU’s Anthony Calvillo threw for 472 yards and five touchdowns and the Aggies rushed for 198 yards to pull off the mild upset. After BYU’s onside kick with 59 seconds remaining failed, Utah State fans stormed the field at Romney Stadium and tore down the goal posts. Utah State athletic director Chuck Bell retrieved the posts, then cut them into nine-inch pieces and sold them for $58.56 apiece.
Oct. 1, 2010
Utah State 31, BYU 16: BYU answered USU’s streak-busting win in 1993 with another 10-game winning streak in the series, but a lot of those games were close as the Aggies improved and rivalry games weren’t played as often. Utah State snapped the skid in 2010, however, as Gary Andersen picked up his first win over the Cougars. Utah State jumped out to a 31-3 lead behind the quarterbacking of Diondre Borel and handed BYU its fourth straight loss, dropping the Cougars’ record to 1-4. The next day, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and gave the job to himself.
Oct. 3, 2014
Utah State 35, No. 18 BYU 20: Having downed UConn, Texas, Houston and Virginia to open the year, the Cougars were rolling with Taysom Hill at quarterback before the Aggies rode into Provo and ruined BYU’s perfect season. Hill suffered what would be the second of four season-ending injuries and USU snapped a three-game losing streak in the series.
Second-year coach Matt Wells would lead USU to a 10-4 record and 21-6 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl; Christian Stewart replaced Hill as the Cougars’ starting quarterback and BYU’s losing streak reached four games before Mendenhall was able to right the ship and get BYU into the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl, a 55-48 loss in two overtimes to Memphis.
Cougars, Aggies on the air
Utah State (1-3) at No. 19 BYU (3-1)
Thursday, 6 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM