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Provo • BYU football players and coaches have generally acknowledged the success that Utah State's program has achieved the past five or six years, but it probably took a 35-20 beating last year at the hands of the Aggies in Provo to really get their full attention.
It was USU's first win at LaVell Edwards Stadium since 1978, and added fuel to a rivalry that had been mostly lopsided the past 30 years. The Cougars (8-3) and Aggies (6-5) will meet for the 85th time on Saturday at Maverik Stadium for the Old Wagon Wheel trophy in what figures to be one of the closest matchups in their long series. BYU leads it, 46-35-3.
"I spent the morning [preparing for] Utah State, and man, they are a good team," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his Monday news briefing. "Schematically, really, really challenging, both on offense and special teams. I don't think it is an accident that Utah State has gone to a number of bowls in a row, that they are playing well, and that they are having success. Their coaches are putting them in position to have success and they have enough good players that when put in the right position can make plays. Yeah, I've been impressed."
Mendenhall mostly stuck to his "every-game-is-important" mantra and said BYU's approach this week will mostly be to focus on itself and how it can improve, but receivers Mitch Mathews and Mitchell Juergens said the feeling in team meetings and around the locker room on Monday was a bit different.
"You can just tell by the way [coaches] carry themselves during the week that the game is more serious," said Mathews. "Coach Mendenhall said this morning that he wants this team to be nameless and faceless, which means you don't care who you play, you just go and play football. But at the same time, you can tell by how they carry themselves, how intense they are in practice, how much more preparation there is, that it is a big time in-state game."
Juergens said he didn't know much about Utah State while growing up in Texas, but "quickly" learned when he arrived that the Aggies are legitimate.
"We are definitely not going to look past them," Juergens said. "It really doesn't matter what records are at this point. It is Utah State vs. BYU, and they are very good. It is a rivalry game, and we both don't want to come out on the bottom. So it is going to be a dogfight from the beginning."
There's no doubting the importance that USU places on the series which is now a home-and-home agreement after years of being two-for-ones in BYU's favor. The contract extension that Utah State coach Matt Wells signed last summer shows that he receives a $5,000 bonus anytime he beats BYU or Utah.
"Is that all?," Mendenhall joked when he was informed of Wells' bonus on Monday. "He needs to get a raise for that. I need to help him negotiate that."
Mendenhall's contract is not available to the public because BYU is a private institution. He said he doesn't receive a similar bonus for beating the Aggies or Utes.
"If [Wells] were a bounty hunter … I wouldn't even go after that target," Mendenhall said. "I would be waiting to go after someone bigger than that."
It's safe to say that bagging BYU would be big enough for the Aggies this year, perhaps save a season that looked promising after an upset at home over Boise State but fizzled with road losses to San Diego State, New Mexico and Air Force. Mendenhall said times have changed since he became BYU's head coach in 2005 and "Utah State wasn't competitive within their league, or just really on a yearly basis.
" And then there's been a significant change to that, and I think that's great for the state of Utah, for the high school prospects and their choices and for the quality of the games that Utah State plays against us and the University of Utah. … So they're a really well-coached, good team."
Mendenhall saved his biggest praise Monday for USU senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton, although it is not known yet whether Keeton or sophomore Kent Myers will start Saturday. Myers injured his shoulder in the 31-27 win over Nevada on Saturday and Keeton rallied the team to bowl eligibility.
"He helped build that program. And I have a lot of respect for him," Mendenhall said. "He's thrown his heart and soul into that program, scrambling and throwing and bodies flying at him and he's seen some of the hard things and he's seen some of the great things, and he has been right at the center of that. I think he's a really good player, and he's a good leader, and he ought to be given a ton of credit for what has happened at Utah State."
BYU at Utah State
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • CBS Sports Network