LOGAN — The milestones are already numerous.
Its first national ranking since 1978. Its best start to any season since 1961. And with a win today over Idaho, its first outright conference championship since 1936.
For further measure, the program has never even seen 10 victories in a season before. But that would change with a defeat of the Vandals.
It’s been a good fall for Utah State football.
Here’s another: With 24 victories, the third-winningest senior class in Aggie history will conclude their collegiate careers this afternoon in Romney Stadium.
USU (9-2, 5-0 WAC) and Idaho (1-10, 1-4) kickoff at 1 p.m. — and just minutes beforehand, 18 players will be honored on the field.
“I don’t want to think much about it,” said cornerback Willie Davis, a De Anza (Cupertino, Calif.) College transfer. “It’s only been a couple of years for me but seems like a long time. It will hit me walking out, when we’re sole champions. It will be memorable. I’d always dreamed of thousands of fans as a kid — and these are probably the best fans in my life.”
“It feels great, not only to be around teammates, but to know we’re leaving a winning program,” said sixth-year wide receiver Matt Austin, who has twice been granted redshirt seasons due to injuries. “We’re going out with a bang.”
“It will be emotional for sure,” said Al Lapuaho, a defensive lineman who transferred from Snow College before last season. “It really hasn’t hit me for a while. I’ve had ups and downs here, but I feel blessed and grateful for the struggles.”
That would include last season’s 2-5 start before signal-caller Adam Kennedy guided USU to five straight wins and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl berth. Then Lapuaho’s coach changed after Dave Aranda was hired as defensive coordinator in January, taking the reins of a defense that ranked 50th in FBS last season in total defense. This year, that front ranks in the top 20 nationally in four categories: sacks (seventh), scoring defense (eighth), rushing defense (10th) and pass efficiency defense (18th).
It’s all helped the Aggies gain their first Associated Press national ranking since 1961.
“It’s crazy,” Lapuaho said. “I knew we could, but wow, we really did it. It’s just crazy to be part of it.”
“We don’t much in other places, but we talk about it all the time in the locker room,” Davis said. “It would be sick to be in our bowl game and have that little national ranking number next to our name on the TV screen.”
With the Potato Bowl the WAC’s only postseason affiliation this year, it is highly unlikely USU will travel anywhere but Boise next month. But with the school’s first outright (and only) WAC title in sight — its 1936 championship was in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, when the team posted a 6-0-1 record — seniors like tight end Kellen Bartlett want to finish what they have had in mind for quite some time.
“I came in with the old coaching staff, but my goal from when I signed my National Letter of Intent was to help change this program,” said Bartlett, who was recruited by a staff led by Brent Guy, who went 9-38 as USU coach from 2005-08. “I won a state championship in high school. We only lost one game in two years. I know what winning is about. It’s a belief. You can’t learn it. Everyone here has been a winner, whether it was in football or basketball or track or rugby. It’s phenomenal to actually see us take these steps and strides to get to this point.”
“I wasn’t here for the really rough seasons, but I love seeing the faces of the fans,” Davis added. “You can tell by how they look at us now that there’s something big here.”
For many seniors, that was manifest on Sept. 27, in a 27-20 overtime win over Utah.
“That was a defining moment for our season,” Bartlett said. “For us to do that helped propel where our season headed and is heading. Losing that game could have made for a very different season.”
Austin was more emphatic.
“That was a defining moment for the whole state of Utah,” he said. Added Davis: “To see people rushing the field and look up to see the stands empty is something I’ve always wanted to experience.”
Much of it was credited to USU head coach Gary Andersen, whom Austin and Lapuaho described with other assistants as a father figure.
By the fourth-year Aggie coach’s own description, one might be able to understand the two’s perspective.
“I’ve told them from the very first day I recruited them that I expect them to be good people and turn young men into men,” Andersen said. “Just like every senior class that has come through here, it’s gone fast. They’ve done some special things. I’m sure 30 years from now, they’ll get to together and remember these special times and remember what they really started.”
For Lapuaho and his collegiate playing days, however, there’s just one side of the spectrum — one that’s perhaps an anomaly to past USU senior classes.
“Finishing strong — that’s something I can take for the rest of my life,” he said. “We are held to that standard.”
USU NOTES: USU has won 14 of its last 17 games… USU has has out-scored its opponents 117-6 in the first quarter. . sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton this week was named the WAC’s offensive player of the week for the fourth time this year and fifth time in his career following his performance against No. 19 Louisiana Tech. Keeton completed 20-of-34 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns. … Keeton is the first player in school history to earn conference player of the week honors four times in a single season. … USU is 5-0 in conference play for the first time since 1960 and the only Aggie team to win six league games was in 1936 (6-0-1 RMAC).