A lot of things have gone right in Cache Valley in the first few weeks of the Utah State football program’s 2012 season.
Its first win over its in-state rival — a Pac-12 member — in 15 years. Conference accolades for its young quarterback and punter. Its first 2-0 start since the Spice Girls were making their breakthrough.
It even received a vote for the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time since an even more-prominent band, the Beatles, earnestly experienced their own rise.
Be it on the ground or in the stands, the Aggies, however, might just be facing those who may not cause euphoria in London, let alone the world, but remain an even bigger deal that what’s been causing shockwaves from Romney Stadium.
When Gary Andersen leads his history book-wrenching crew into Saturday’s contest in Madison, Wis., it will be a 5-foot-11, 215-pound record-setting native of Wentzville, Mo., whose excellence the University of Wisconsin’s athletics department has already campaigned for through a Facebook page and a Twitter handle and hashtag. It will also be some rabid football fans (sans the cheese heads … that’s found up the road a few hours) eager to see their Badgers take out their frustrations of a surprising loss in the Pacific Northwest, which caused Wisconsin to fall out of the same poll where USU found notoriety.
These fans may just expect to see their program feast on another people are still becoming more familiarized with since its near-upset of Auburn last year.
Wisconsin’s Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for single-season touchdowns (39) in a 2011 Heisman trophy finalist season. That was more scores than 42 Football Bowl Subdivision teams had combined last fall. He led the NCAA in rushing yards (1,923) and yards from scrimmage (2,229) during the same season, when the Badgers were Big Ten champions and Rose Bowl participants.
“They like to highlight him as a football player — and they should,” Andersen said. “The amount of carries (Ball notched 307 carries last season) and the workload that he had upon himself last year was impressive, how durable he was. Pretty much, he is the whole package as a back, if you will.”
The fourth-year USU coach compared Ball to Jon White IV, the bruising Utah tailback who earned all-conference honors in 2011 after breaking single-season school records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The senior, however, was limited to just 3.6 yards per carry after receiving the call 27 times in Logan — a count similar to what Ball will expect. He lugged 32 rushes when the Badgers eked out a Sept. 1 win over non-FBS Northern Iowa.
His count was only 15 last Saturday, when he was limited to 61 yards in a 10-7 upset at Oregon State. Ball also didn’t manage a touchdown in Corvallis, breaking a 21-game streak that dated back to Oct. 2010. He is still days removed from the arrest of three 21-year-old men from Madison who the police report has accused for causing Ball a concussion earlier in the month. The injury kept the star from missing much of the Badgers’ training camp.
The scandal aside, some Aggies feel confident about limiting Ball just as the underdog Beavers did — and just as the USU defense did against its own star opponent. Linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu, who registered 12 tackles against the Utes, preferred to take a complementary approach.
“They are both slashers, and both very good backs. I can’t say who is better, but once we play against Monte Ball we will find out.”
Then there’s the atmosphere: a hostile one. Wisconsin has won 17 consecutive games at Camp Randall Stadium, dating back to Halloween of 2009. Under head coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers have gone 40-3 in home games since 2006. The only teams that did win all went to BCS bowls. Dating to two years earlier, when Bielema joined the UW coaching staff as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin is 51-4 at home. That is the third-best home record in the country over that span, behind only Boise State and Oklahoma.
USU themselves gave the latter all they could handle in a 31-24 decision in Norman just two seasons ago, the last time before the Auburn contest in which the Aggies faced an NCAA superpower of Wisconsin’s caliber. Following that battle and the 2011 season where USU lost five games by one score or less, sixth-year senior Matt Austin noted a change.
“Yeah, it was kind of a different feeling,” Austin said of a contest in which many remember USU out-playing the Sooners most of the way, much like last year’s nail-biter in Alabama. “I know a lot of people were probably in the stands (in Norman) hanging their heads a little bit, and I liked how we proved everyone wrong. I like the AP poll. I like to see that people know that we are here.”