Utes look to change history

By By Tony Pizza and By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

Although the in-state rivalry between the Utah Utes and the Utah State Aggies does not have the intensity of the U/BYU rivalry, the annual U/USU football game is the state of Utah’s longest-running rivalry.

Since 1892, the Utah-Utah State football game has been played 105 times. This has been an annual tradition every year since 1900, with the exception of four years in the early 20th century.

The Utes own a 73-28-4 record over those 105 meetings, including a current eight-game winning streak dating back to 1998. In fact, during the two teams’ extensive history, the Utes have had three separate eight-year winning streaks, but never a nine-year winning streak. Two of the Utes’ eight-game win streaks against the Aggies have come in the last 18 years. Sandwiched between those Ute win streaks are two games that often stick out in the short memory of many Utah fans.

The year 1996 was poised to be a banner season for the Utes. It was only one year removed from the team’s first top-10 finish, and it had players like Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, Kevin Dyson, Juan Johnson, Rocky Henry and the two Lusks (Henry and Harold), all of whom went on to play for NFL teams. The last day in August was supposed to be the transition from anticipation to reality, and the Aggies were the Utes’ first victim. Instead of letting the Utes walk into Logan and make Utah State the appetizer for a season-long Ute feast, the Aggies left a bitter taste in the Ute fans’ and players’ mouth for the remainder of the season with a 20-17 upset in Logan.

The Utes went on to finish the season a fairly disappointing 8-4, and many would argue that the surprising loss to Utah State had a lot to do with it.

In 1997, the Utes looked to wash out the acrid taste from their season opener the year prior, and they looked to do it this time in front of their home fans. Utah State did not go quietly, and a day shy of the anniversary of Utah State’s shocking 1996 upset, the Aggies repeated the deed, beating the Utes 21-14 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

From that day forward, the Utes have not taken the game against the Aggies lightly. The Aggies nearly beat the Utes the following year, eventually falling to the Utes 20-12 in Logan. Utah State also took the U to the wire in 2001, narrowly losing 23-19 in Salt Lake City.

Although the Utes haven’t lost to the Aggies since Urban Meyer replaced Ron McBride in 2003, head coach Kyle Whittingham experienced the back-to-back losses in 1996 and 1997. History also points out that the Utes have never been able to win nine-straight games against their northern opponent, something the Utes seem to have a good chance at doing on Saturday-though that is what fans said in 1996, too.

“It is a long rivalry and is steeped in tradition,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I think they’re very well-coached. We’ve had some great battles up in Logan over the years. We seem to get their best game every time. More times than not, it’s a very competitive situation.”

These are the exact reasons rivalry games are in a class of their own. Every year the dynamic of a team changes as players graduate and freshmen come in, but teams are very familiar with each other. This is why no team is ever safe in a rivalry game, even if teams like the Utes tend to perennially have superior athletes at the skill positions and the offensive and defensive lines.

“I think we match up well on the line of scrimmage. We think our lines year in and year out are if not at the top, near the top of the Mountain West Conference,” Whittingham said about the success of the yearly running game success against Utah State. “I think that’s been a strength of ours. That’s the same thing this year. I like our front five on offense. I like our front four on defense. That’s the primary reason?just the physicality we’ve been able to generate with the offensive line.”

The competition in rivalries creates an environment that amplifies players’ abilities, which levels the skill disparity. This is why no team is ever safe in a rivalry game, especially one that has endured as long as the Ute-Aggie games. Crazy things are always bound to happen.

Chronicle file photo

Utah State wide receiver Kevin Robinson catches a pass thrown by quarterback Leon Jackson III as Utah linebacker Taylor Miller (54) and defensive back Stephen Gordon (19) in last year’s game against Utah State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Robinson finished the night with eight yards on two receptions. The Utes defeated the Aggies 31-7.