Utah State football: Aggies see themselves as underdogs no more
Logan • Eric Schultz never really liked the "little brother" label.
Utah State's senior right tackle, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound all-conference lineman last year, has never seen himself as an underdog. The whole mentality, he said, is overrated.
"I've always gone into a game thinking we're going to win," Schultz said. "That's the attitude I take into the season and into the game: We're going to go in and win. I've never felt like a little brother to anybody."
Despite what any current Aggies may feel today, it wasn't long ago when Utah State deserved that label.
Headed into last season's game, Utah had beaten down the Aggies 12 straight times. It wasn't a rivalry as much as a tune-up for the Utes.
With a 27-20 win in overtime, Utah State finally cut the string of defeat last season. The rivalry means something again. When the Aggies go into Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, they don't see themselves as underdogs. Their mentality has changed since that last meeting.
They're looking eye-to-eye with the Utes at last.
"When I first got here and coach [Gary] Andersen first took over the program, the mindset was 'Please let's win this week' and even when people did win, it was a bit of a surprise," defensive end Connor Williams said. "Now we expect to win, and go out there and dominate."
It's a mentality the Aggies have started bringing to all their games, but it takes on a special meaning against the Utes.
There will be few contests with as much familiarity as this one. More than two dozen Utes share at least a common high school or junior college with an Aggie. Many of them played against each other in high school. Some are cousins.
Coach Matt Wells said the personal connections will be left at the wayside at kickoff, but there's no doubt there's a lot of pride tied up in the result.
"It won't be a make-or-break game for the season," Wells said. "But it's an important game, a very emotional game, and I love in-state rivalries."
It's easy to point at the 110-year history of the rivalry and call the win a statistical oddity. The Utes have beaten the Aggies nearly three times as often as they've lost. The last time Utah State won back-to-back games was in 1996 and 1997 under John L. Smith probably a memory lost on most of the current team.
But 2012 doesn't appear to be a flash in the pan for the Aggies, who return 15 starters on offense and defense. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton and his entire offensive line is back, and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham remarked Tuesday that every player on the Aggies defense is an upperclassman, with the exception of all-conference sophomore Kyler Fackrell.
Any talk of last year being a fluke means little to Utah State.
"I've heard people say it was a fluke and stuff like that, but we're not worried about that," Williams said. "All we're concerned about is preparing, going out there and getting the W. We're not worried about what people think and what their feelings are. It doesn't matter."
Looking ahead, a win against the Utes could set the table nicely for the rest of the Aggies' early schedule. Utah State heads on the road against Air Force, USC and San Jose State during September. Victory in the season opener could be a boost against the tough slate.
Several Aggies said last season's win helped give them confidence for the rest of the year. After topping the Utes, the team finished the year with a program-best 11-2 season, a conference title and a bowl win.
If they can escape Rice-Eccles with another win, Utah State hopes for a similar effect.
"This game is going to be kind of a tone-setter for the rest of our season," Keeton said. I know it's only the first game, but every single game has it's own weight, so this one is a huge one."
Utah State at Utah
O Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 1