By Rhett Wilkinson
They were coined “The Cardiac Kids” for a reason.
Behind third-year head coach Gary Andersen, NFL-bound running back Robert Turbin and the sixth-best rushing attack in the nation, the 2011 version of the Utah State football program reached heights they hadn’t achieved in 14 years.
The Aggies finished the season with a winning record and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl appearance that ended the way most games developed throughout the season—with one heart-wrenching, Adam’s Apple-swallowing, lose-your-vocal-cords battle that was decided only after one wild, five-lateral kickoff return play that ceased near midfield.
In short, after that 24-23 defeat to Ohio in Boise on Dec. 17, Aggie fans may have needed to do what they had done all season in Logan, Honolulu, Auburn, Ala. and elsewhere—race into an emergency room after the game just to make sure their heart was still beating properly.
As for the team’s well-being after such scenarios? No worries there.
“It’s wild to say, but they were comfortable,” Andersen said. He coined the team’s popular nickname himself, with USU’s involvement in 10 contests decided by a score or less—the most in the nation this season. “They don’t flinch. We talked about that in the beginning of the year. It’s kind of a motto we used, but boy, I never thought it would come down to so many being that close. The ones we didn’t win, I don’t look back. We just didn’t make a play. It’s not like we got starry-eyed.”
Celestial visions aside, the Aggies did manage to make a play enough times—particularly five games in a row in the second half of the season—to become one of the best squads Cache Valley has seen in decades. USU did it despite losing their stellar freshman quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, to what team physician Trek Lyons described as a “flexion injury” in the eighth game of the season at Hawaii on Nov. 5, leaving them with no choice but to rely on the arm of junior-college transfer Adam Kennedy to deliver the season-salvaging streak.
Strangely enough, it was what transpired in the moments after the Houston, Texas native was carried on a stretcher out of the stadium and to The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu that sparked the Aggies’ season revival.
With most of the Aggie faithful on the mainland having turned off the tube and towards the confines of their bed, Kennedy promptly entered the game and completed touchdown passes of 37 and 71 yards within minutes of each other. That lead his offense to 280 second-half yards — and a shocking 35-31 victory over a Warriors team that was led by quarterback Bryant Moniz, a Heisman Trophy candidate for most of the season. It was the Aggies’ first win on the islands since 1966.
“That Hawaii game was the turning point of our season, no doubt,” Andersen said. “It was hard for Adam Kennedy. He walked in here as the JC quarterback and was beat out by a true freshman. He handled it unbelievably. He stuck with it and was prepared to make some plays for us.”
Kennedy and the rest of the team, including a defense led by all-WAC first team linebacker Bobby Wagner, were able to parlay the shocking victory into a series of final-second victories over San Jose State, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico State in consecutive weeks, all of which remained undecided until the final play. For Turbin, it marked a refreshing change at the time for a group that had found themselves on the wrong end of such games earlier in the season.
The setbacks include a one-score loss at Louisiana Tech in which Turbin was suspiciously kept out of the game on a critical third-down situation with just minutes to play; a 27-24 defeat in Provo against BYU when one of the program’s former players, Riley Nelson, entered the game in the second half to steal the contest; a double-overtime home loss at Colorado State and perhaps the toughest one of all, a 42-38 season-opening decision at Auburn, the defending national champion. The Tigers had to score twice in the final 2:07, an onside kick recovery included, in order to avoid losing a Sept. 3 contest in which the Aggies were supposed to be overmatched.
“We had all these great players, these top-notch coaches, and we were practicing great, and then we’re all looking at each other and going, ‘what’s going on? We’re 2-5,’” Turbin said on Nov. 26, after the Aggies had become bowl-eligible by beating Nevada. “I didn’t want to go to a Washington or an Oregon because they’ve already won. I wanted to come and create something, to build something. The number one thing I wanted to do when I came here wasn’t to break records or be the rushing champion.”
Not that he didn’t do those things, either. Turbin, the WAC Offensive Player of the Year, finished with 1,517 yards, 20 yards shy of the USU single-season rushing record. His 3,315 career rushing yards also place him fifth all-time on the school career rushing list and 19th on the all-time WAC career rushing list. He set new records in USU’s single-season rushing touchdown, total touchdown and scoring books. His star counterpart, senior Bobby Wagner, tied the USU career tackles list since it first started being counted in 1979 with 446 career stops, while also passing Robert Rodriguez (2001-04) of UTEP for the new WAC record.
Both players now look forward to playing football for a little more money than a scholarship and a grant. Each are expected to be drafted in April’s NFL Draft after Turbin declared on his Twitter account that he will declare for the pros with a year of eligibility still remaining. As of Jan. 3, USU athletics media relations had yet to make an official announcement.
The losses of two of the greatest players in USU football history aren’t the only personnel that Andersen and his staff will be hard-pressed to fill. Senior running back Michael Smith will graduate in May after rushing for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl game, finishing the season with 870 rushing yards and eight rushing scores. He led the team with a 7.6 yards per carry average, returning to the field this past fall after completely missing the previous season due to injury, like Turbin had. Senior linebacker Kyle Gallagher and senior defensive end Levi Koskan also leave big shoes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, while second-team all-WAC tight end Tarren Lloyd and Morrison will also be graduating.
Kerwynn Williams, who set the single-season kick return record in 2010, will enter spring practices as the feature running back, leading senior Joey DeMartino and sophomore Joe Hill.
In replacing Wagner and Gallagher, Andersen said that he plans on shifting Bojay Filimoeatu and Tavaris McMillian to the inside to allow guys like Jason Fanaika and Kyle Fackrell to stay outside.
“Right now we’re working on identification from inside the program,” Andersen said. “We’ll create a competition, but I feel good about those outside linebacker spots as far as who we have. If we find a special young man we’ll take him, but we only have the one spot to fill.”
The offense will receive a boost if wide receiver Matt Austin can receive another medical redshirt to return for a sixth season. Austin played a huge role in teaming up with Kennedy late in the season for two game-winning receptions on fade routes in the 34-33 home win over San Jose State, and in the 24-21 triumph in the regular-season finale against New Mexico State.
“If we get him back we’ll have three very good wide receivers,” Andersen said, adding Chuck Jacobs and Travis Van Leeuwen to the mix. “That’s one thing we’ll see as we move forward. I think he deserves it.”
Just after the turn of the New Year, offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin announced he will be leaving the program to take the same position at Colorado State. Baldwin was oft-criticized by fans and media alike for his play-calling procedures, such as his decision to leave Turbin off the field in the loss to WAC champion Louisiana Tech (whom the Aggies finished just one game behind the Bulldogs in the final conference standings) or to run the ball 50 times and pass just 19 times for only 96 yards in the bowl game. As part of his move to CSU, Baldwin will make $75,000 more per year than he did with the Aggies. His relationship with new head coach Jim McElwain was also be a significant factor for him accepting the job, Baldwin said. They previously worked together at Michigan State.
Matt Wells was selected as Baldwin’s replacement after hardly a search from Andersen. Wells, a former USU signal-caller, acted as the Aggies’ quarterbacks coach this season. His mentorship of Chuckie Keeton and his development of Adam Kennedy were significant factors for his promotion. Along with Wells’ hiring, sources close to the program say, the Utah State offense will change from a pro-style running game to more of a spread look, as Andersen was a part of while coaching as Utah’s defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer in 2003-04.
Two weeks ago, in his season wrap-up interview, Andersen said Keeton had the slight edge number one guy behind center, despite Kennedy’s 5-1 record as a starter. Keeton was one of 20 individuals in the nation named to the College Football Performance Awards 2011 National Freshman of the Year Trophy Watch List after being second in the WAC in passing efficiency and sixth in the league in total offense, with more than 185 yards per game. Kennedy passed for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions in more than five games.
Regardless of his decision about who will lead an offensive charge that set a single-season school record with 5,945 total yards, Andersen said that next year’s team has strides to make.
“In the long range of the football program I think we improved in all areas,” said Andersen, who signed a contract extension on Dec. 15 that carries through 2017 and pays $565,000 annually with incentives. “We’ve become much more physical of a team and found ways to win games in the end. It’s a great stepping stone for us. There were a couple of times this year that we weren’t quite in the spot physically we needed to be in. We want to get longer and stronger and even more physical. They’ll be challenged, and I’ll challenge myself in that way to get better.”