A Look Back At Utah State’s Magical Season
Very few expected Aggies to be this good.
Future is bright for Aggies football.
In football, there is an ancient proverb that says, “if you have two quarterbacks, you have none.”
But in 14 games of football, the Aggies rejected the commonly sanctioned dogma and wrote their own. For the 2021 Utah State Aggies, the prophecy shifted into “if you have no quarterbacks, you have three.”
At the start of the 2021 season, the anecdote was a menacing prophecy for Utah State. The Aggies had a quarterback battle raging on dangerously close to kickoff, and while having two capable quarterbacks fighting for a spot was a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the post-Jordan Love era, it was still too soon to see if having two quarterbacks actually indicted the lack of one. To some, it seemed Utah State was destined to fail. Contrarily, the Aggies weren’t destined for failure. They were destined for one of the greatest comebacks in college football history.
In 2020, the Aggies suffered one of the lowest points in program history. A single “W” in the win column only tells part of the dreary story. Utah State achieved a somber 1-5 record on an eight-game schedule. One win, five losses, and two games not played.
The desolate season towered over even the often forgotten and written-off 2006 season when Utah State’s lone win came after being outscored 185-28 over five games. The expectations were higher, and the results were lower. The on-field struggles combined with off-field disasters sunk the program to what would quite possibly be rock bottom during the 2020 season.
On October 24th, after weeks of debate and constant change, the season finally kicked off. It had already been canceled, rearranged, and postponed, but it was finally here. The Aggies lost their season opener to the Boise State Broncos 42-13. It wouldn’t get much better for Utah State. November 7th, after an 0-3 start,
Andersen and the program parted ways, bringing an end to Andersen’s complicated legacy. After one more loss, on November 15th, quarterback Jason Shelley was released from the team, leaving the Aggies without a signal-caller. Midway through the season, the Aggies were without a coach, without a quarterback, without a win, and without much hope. Utah State’s gritty “next man up” mentality was the only thing that helped the Aggies limp through the season, even though they stopped just short of the finish line. That mentality had become an essential facet of this team’s identity, particularly during the Chuckie Keeton era. Despite the team’s best efforts, Utah State was no match for outside circumstances, and the season continued the spiral towards disaster.
The season continued with a game against the Wyoming Cowboys canceled due to COVID-19, a home win against the winless New Mexico Lobos, a blowout loss to the Air Force Falcons, then a forfeit. This forfeit was not caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic like the canceled game before in the season.
This one was caused by Utah State’s players refusing to take the field against the Colorado State Rams. In the wake of the recent announcement that Blake Anderson had been hired as the new head coach, the players were protesting an off-field situation regarding the head coaching search. However, the issues were later cleared up, and no wrongdoing was found on behalf of the University. This fiasco capped off an already embarrassing and catastrophic season for Utah State in a year where money was already tight for everyone.
Anderson had been hired on December 12th and was thrown right into the fray. Anderson was tasked with a difficult mandate. He not only had to turn the ship around, he had to stop it from sinking first. At the time, the roster was in disarray, the University was drowning in a PR nightmare, and despite his impressive resume, Anderson was widely considered to be the wrong man for the job.
The new head ball coach didn’t let that stop him. Anderson got straight to work. Upon his arrival in Logan, he immediately started to assemble a winning crew. He began with a coaching staff that came together quite nicely; Defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda, formerly the co-defensive coordinator at Miami, offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker, formerly the running backs coach at UCF, strength coach Paul Jackson, who held the same position at Ole Miss then South Carolina before joining Utah State, and Aggie Legend Chuckie Keeton as the running backs coach. The staff also included familiar names like DJ Tialavea and Al Lapuaho, who are both former players, Nick Paremski and Kyle Cefalo, who followed Anderson from Arkansas State, as well as Micah James from UMass, Mike Zuckerman from Miami, and Ray Brown from Troy.
After assembling an impressive coaching staff with outstanding résumés, Anderson and that staff turned toward their attention to the roster. Anderson took a multifaceted approach to the task and added talent and depth from anywhere he could get it. He worked the transfer portal from both ends, convincing guys like Deven Thompkins to withdraw from the portal and stay in Logan while bringing in transfers such as Logan Bonner and Justin Rice from Arkansas State, Nick Heninger from Utah, and Byron Vaughns from Texas.
In many ways, it may seem that Utah State was lucky to even field a team in 2021. The multifactorial disaster in 2020 is the type of thing that leaves programs destitute and debilitated. Instead of resigning to the seemingly inevitable mediocrity, or worse, Utah State found a way to return to the field, but to return to winning ways.
The deepest depths were followed by the highest highs.
Utah State football turned an insurmountable program-destroying crisis into a small speed bump, quickly shrinking in the rearview mirror.
It took only one game to make history. Utah State beat the Washington State Cougars in a come-from-behind victory that represented several milestones. It was Utah State’s first Power Five win since beating Wake Forest in 2014, their first Power Five road win since 1971 when the Aggies beat Kansas State, and their second-ever against the PAC-12 (or PAC-10/PAC-8), since they beat Utah in their second year in that conference. Additionally, Coach Anderson became the first Utah State head coach to win his opening game since Phil Krueger won his opener against Weber State in 1973.