Sports 12/01/00

Aggie football looks ahead to next season on the gridiron

By Aaron Morton

August 18: USU's football team's media day. About eight members of the Salt Lake and Cache Valley media descended on Romney Stadium to interview a host of players and coaches.

As the reporters wandered around the field asking questions, they continued to hear the same thing: The Aggies were going to win the conference.

For most college football teams, this is a standard procedure. Don't say anything negative, don't bad mouth other players.

But this was Utah State. The team's coach was fired immediately after last season with some controversy, the new coach had never coached at the Division I level, and the team was extremely young. Every poll and magazine had USU at the bottom of the Big West Conference.

Even when the team was 1-4 after being run out of Cougar Stadium in USU's final non-conference game, runningback/returner Emmett White looked reporters in the eye and said his team would compete for the final Big West Championship.

The players knew what they were talking about. "I think we have made significant, measurable progress," Dennehy said.

Despite the disappointing loss to Idaho State University in the finale, the Aggies did a lot more than anyone thought they would.

Taking a page from the 1999-2000 USU basketball team's book, USU won when it counted, winning its first four Big West games to force a championship game with favorite Boise State University.

The Broncos did embarrass the Aggies, scoring eight touchdowns in their 66-38 win in Bronco Stadium. "Coming short in Boise was a real difficult pill to swallow," Dennehy said.

The season ended on a sour note when USU lost 27-24 to Division I-AA ISU in Romney Stadium. The usually potent Aggie offense seemed stuck in mud, or the frozen turf.

Dennehy said it was a tough lesson for USU to learn that anybody can beat anybody in college football. "If we can learn from that, we can use that as great motivation," he said.

While that was the low point, the high point was the run at the championship, Dennehy said.

After losing tough road games to Texas Tech University and Arizona State University and dropping two of three in-state games vs. the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Southern Utah University, the Aggies opened up with a 17-12 win over the University of North Texas.

While the victory wasn't anything spectacular, it was important to the team's confidence.

Then the team wowed the home crowd with a 31-14 drubbing of the University of Idaho. The win was all that more impressive because the U of I was one of USU's main rivals, the Vandals smashed the Aggies 31-3 in Pullman, Wash., the season before.

"Once we got into league, we played a brand of football that we were capable of playing," Dennehy said. "The kids made a statement."

The next week, one ˘kid÷ made another big statement. Against New Mexico State University, junior running back Emmett White smashed the NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a game with 578 yards. He also scored four touchdowns, including the winning one with 28 seconds left in a wild 44-37 victory in Las Cruces, N.M. For his efforts, the humble White earned national recognition and a small story in Sports Illustrated.

White is one of the reasons the future looks bright, "very bright," Dennehy said, for Utah State. White and most of the offensive and defensive units will return next year.

The lineman and defensive backs are extremely young, while linebackers Jesse Busta and Tony Newson (a senior who received a medical red shirt) will be back.

His main blocker John Roberts and half the offensive line will be back, starter-turned-challenger Jeff Crosbie will be back. The biggest challenge, Dennehy said, will be trying to replace Aaron Jones.

But the former Montana head coach will have a lot of scholarships to offer to try to fill Jones' spot. He cleaned house when he came in this season, taking about 20 scholarships away. Only the NCAA restriction of signing a maximum of 25 players will hold him back.

And now the community is starting to get behind the team. A record number of season tickets were sold and total attendance was the third-best in school history this season.

But USU fans can't say, "Wait untill next year, because there isn't going to be a next year, at least for the Big West Conference in football. The Aggies are going to go it alone next season as an independent.

"Our hands are really tied for a year," Dennehy said. "[But] our philosophy has been to deal with the circumstances the best we can."

So USU has made a schedule that will be challenging, but also fan-friendly because of the type of teams that will play in Romney Stadium. The University of Wyoming, the University of Oregon, the University of Central Florida and regional teams ISU and Weber State University will come to Logan.

"We have a great home schedule," Dennehy said. But the schedule also comes with three trips East, including Louisiana State University. The pro: Seeing some places that some kids have never seen: The con: The trips will be expensive, Dennehy said.

But even playing stronger opponents, the Aggies will only have an outside chance of playing in the postseason.

"An at-large bowl would be the pot of gold at the end of the year," Dennehy said. Aggie fans hope that gold isn't as mythical as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow




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