From 1998 through 2010, in terms of futility, few college football programs could match Utah State. During that stretch, the Aggies went 43-106 under four head coaches and had 13 consecutive losing seasons.
But how do you like them now? The past four seasons, including the current one, Utah State is 34-16 with three bowl appearances and a fourth virtually guaranteed.
The Aggies (7-3 overall, 4-1 in Mountain West Conference play) play New Mexico (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday in Logan, Utah.
Is there a blueprint up there, one that New Mexico coach Bob Davie can follow as he works to help the Lobos out of their 17-65 doldrums since 2008?
In general, Davie says, yes.
“I think, number one, it’s the recruiting piece,” Davie said after Thursday’s UNM practice. “Then, the development of players. … Then, continuity. Those three things.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily specific to (Utah State), but that’s really what it is. They’ve done a good job recruiting, and they’ve done a good job developing players.”
In specifics, however, the situations are far from identical. The Utah State job has had its challenges; the New Mexico job has its own.
“I’ll say this situation here is pretty unique,” Davie said. “I’m pretty aware of that.”
The revival of the Utah State program – like New Mexico a regional power during the one-platoon era in the late 1950s-early ‘ 60s – has taken time and patience.
After the 2008 season, Utah State fired coach Brent Guy after he compiled a four-year record of 9-38. Gary Andersen, who been the defensive coordinator at Utah, was hired to replace him.
The improvement was not dramatic at first. The Aggies went 4-8 each of Andersen’s first two seasons.
In 2011, however, victories in their last five regular-season games propelled the Aggies to their first winning season since 1996 and their first bowl game since 1993.
Utah State went 11-2 in 2012, prompting Wisconsin to hire Andersen away. But the Aggies have gone 16-8 the past two seasons under coach Matt Wells, an Andersen assistant and a Utah State graduate (and a former New Mexico assistant).
The continuity of the past five seasons, Davie said, has enabled Utah State to recruit consistently to its needs. Only three Utah State players listed as defensive starters on the current depth chart were starters last season – yet, the Aggies, eighth nationally in rush defense in 2013, rank sixth in that category entering Saturday’s game.
“When you really go back and look at last year, they graduated some guys,” Davie said. “But they’ve got a lot of them, a lot of big bodies.”
So stout is Utah State up front that the Aggies have been able to overcome the loss to injury the past two seasons of dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton. It was Keeton who led USU to that 11-2 record in 2011.
Davie has been looking for a Chuckie Keeton of his own, having signed seven quarterbacks to scholarships since he arrived in 2012. Is the current starter, redshirt freshman Lamar Jordan, that guy? The jury is out.
In stark contrast to Utah State’s strength against the run, New Mexico ranks 122nd nationally in that department.
Davie believes he has good young players up front on both of sides of the ball. But UNM can’t match Utah State on two fronts, both connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: players returning from church missions and players of Polynesian descent.
Defensive end B.J. Larson and offensive tackle Kevin Whimpey, arguably the best Utah State players on their respective units, served two-year LDS missions.
The Aggies have 16 players of Polynesian descent, including starting defensive nose guard Elvis Kamana-Matagi and starting offensive left guard Taani Fisilau.
Without those advantages, Davie – 10-24 in his third year at UNM – believes his program is headed in Utah State’s direction.
“But it’s about maturity,” he said. “It’s about development of players. At some point the weight room starts to become a factor after three or four years, the way we’re feeding kids now (under the NCAA’s new unlimited meals and snacks plan), the way we’re recruiting.
“It’s the total building of a program model that’s even a little more difficult here, just because of where it’s coming from.”