Gary Andersen apparently made quite an impression on Wisconsin athletic director and renowned former Badger head coach Barry Alvarez when he led his Utah State Aggies to Camp Randall Stadium in September. Late on Tuesday night, multiple reports surfaced that Andersen was tabbed as Wisconsin’s new head coach.
USU, a program that had played in all of one bowl since 1997, went onto the home turf of the two-time defending Big Ten Conference champion and dictated the tempo. Heisman Trophy finalist running back Montee Ball rushed for a 17-yard touchdown in the late third quarter that proved to be the game winner. Ball went for 139 yards on the day, but needed 37 carries to do so.
An Aggie defense that would ranked No. 12 among all FBS programs in stopping the run proved its strength was no fluke, no byproduct of playing WAC competition, by holding one of college football’s all-time standout backs to 3.8 yards per carry. Ball’s touchdown was also the only the Badgers scored on the offensive end in their hard-earned, 16-14 win.
Surely much more than one game went into the decision to turn over one of the most successful programs of the past two decades to Andersen. But Utah State’s Sept. 15 trip to Wisconsin looks, in retrospect, like an audition of sorts against Alvarez’s hand-picked successor, Bret Bielema, who took Wisconsin to the pinnacle of the Big Ten employing a similar style but with a modern twist. Likewise, Andersen has made his coaching bones with the philosophy Alvarez employed in 16 seasons as head coach, and the last seven as athletic director.
Andersen’s defensive guidance produced one of the elite defenses of the BCS era at Utah. The 2008 Utes went undefeated, including a two-touchdown defeat of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. This season’s Utah State defense mirrored Utah’s in 2008, built on a stout front seven that stomped out the rush and backed up by an active secondary.
On offense, Andersen’s teams were built on the rush. Kerwynn Williams finished with 1512 yards, seamlessly replacing 2011 star and 1517-yard ball carrier Robert Turbin. That fits the mold Alvarez established and Bielema continued, which is good news for returning back James White.
Andersen’s bowl teams also had the added, modern twist with dual threat Chuckie Keeton supplementing the rush and effectively spreading the ball around on the pass — almost comparably to a lesser Russell Wilson.
“That’s a very good football team that obviously beat and has hung tight with all these other people,” Bielema said.
The “other people” to which Bielema referred includes Auburn, which in its first game after winning the BCS championship, needed a fourth quarter rally to top the Aggies. USU also hung tough with a double digit-win Ohio in the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, in-state rival and 10-win BYU, and eventual WAC champion Louisiana Tech. In fact, the 2011 Aggies lost six games by a combined 26 points.
That was an awful lot of heartbreak to suffer through one campaign, culminating in an all-too-fitting one-point loss in the program’s first bowl appearance in 14 years. And with early season losses at Wisconsin and BYU by a combined five points,
But Andersen got Utah State over the hump. The heart ache of 2011 was a necessary growing pain to produce the program’s greatest single season ever. The Wisconsin and BYU defeats were the Aggies’ only speed bumps in an 11-2 2012 that included wins over Pac-12 member Utah, 10-win San Jose State, Louisiana Tech and a fitting, bowl game thumping of nine-win Toledo.
Andersen is a proven winner. His philosophy should translate effortlessly to Alvarez’s vision. For a program that has excelled for two decades, the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same.