BYU and Utah State have had similar paths to tonight’s Beehive State game at USU.
Both are sporting a pair of single digit-point losses; BYU to Virginia and Utah by three and seven, Utah State to Utah and USC by four and three.
Each embarks on the meat of its schedule this month. For Utah State, that means its inaugural campaign in the very winnable Mountain West Conference. For BYU, that entails facing the best docket athletic Tom Holmoe put together in the Cougars’ short time as an independent.
The Cougars and Aggies also both have plenty of motivation to win this game, transcending the typical coach-speak logic that “every game is important.”
No, tonight matters for more significant reasons.
That remaining schedule BYU faces? It includes Georgia Tech, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Among the motivating factors behind the Cougars’ declaration of conference independence was more opportunity for BYU to prove the program’s validity against elite competition.
It has to start with Utah State, because the Aggies are exactly that.
Utah State has twice gone on the road and come within a possession of Pac-12 competition. It did the same a year ago after making the trip south to Provo.
This time, the Aggies get the Cougars in Logan.
BYU responded resoundingly to the loss of Cody Hoffman last week, routing visiting Middle Tennessee. The Cougars could have fallen into a trap, but avoided the pitfall.
The Cougars have momentum coming off the win, and present a similar challenge to the Aggies as did Utah and USC.
BYU is a team built on its defense, and the similar-constructed Utes and Trojans held Utah State 14 and 26 points below its current scoring average.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy is not commanding the same national attention as he had at the end of the 2012 season, but because of a dip in production. Van Noy has nine quarterback hurries and 6.5 tackles for loss through just four games.
Van Noy can interject his name back into the national conversation tonight by harassing Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton, one of college football’s non-BCS conference gems and the most dynamic playmaker the Cougars will see at quarterback all season.
Similarly, Keeton can grow his national profile and strengthen his Heisman case with a solid outing against the stingy Cougar defense.
But more importantly for Keeton, and Utah State as a team, BYU is among the series of near-misses that have plagued the program in the last two years.
Utah State has steadily progressed from a Western Athletic Conference cellar dweller to a team that finished 2012 in the Top 25, but closing out in close games against prominent opponents is the difference in winning over BCS conference-obsessed skeptics.
Utah proved a Mountain West program can win over the power conference elite, but the Utes only did so by winning their high profile games.
The Aggies were close against USC and Utah, just like they’ve been close against Auburn, Wisconsin and twice, BYU during the previous two seasons.
BYU’s two, 3-point wins in 2011 and 2012 extended the Cougars’ domination of the series to 12-of-13 since 1994, and 22-of-24 since 1983.
Beating BYU is a milestone for Utah State football’s overall progression, and a statement that the Aggies are no little brothers to their recognized Beehive State counterparts.
“This is why you play sports, for rivalry games,” said defensive end B.J. Larsen in Utah State’s weekly press conference Monday. “I grew up around BYU and the University of Utah, I’m from Logan, my dad actually went to BYU, but I’ve converted him to an Aggie fan. I bleed Aggie Blue and I want this win more than anyone.”
A shared motivator are the in-state bragging rights. With both sporting losses to Utah, Friday is their last chance for some in-state pride.