Utah Needs to Beat Utah State to Set Tone for the 2013 Season

Kyle KensingContributor IAugust 27, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 15: Utah Head coach Kyle Whittingham waits for Officials to talk over a penalty that gave the BYU Cougars a second chance at a field goal against the University of Utah Utes during the second half of an college football game September 15, 2012 at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah beat BYU 24-21. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
George Frey/Getty Images

The Utah Utes and Utah State Aggies took two decidedly different paths after their meeting last September.

Utah State used the 27-20 win as a springboard into the best season in program history: 11 wins, the final Western Athletic Conference championship and billing in the both Top 25 polls. 

For Utah, the 27-20 loss set the tone for a disappointing second season in the Pac-12 Conference. The Utes missed the postseason for the first time in a decade, and Kyle Whittingham suffered his first losing season since succeeding Urban Meyer in 2005. 

Not long ago, Utah football was in the role Utah State now occupies—that of an up-and-coming, non-automatic qualifying conference spoiler out to make noise against its BCS conference competition. 

Putting Utah's 2012 disappointment behind them starts on Thursday, when Utah State visits Rice-Eccles Stadium in as much of a must-win game as any Pac-12 team faces in Week 1. 

Despite losing head coach Gary Andersen to Wisconsin in the offseason, the Aggies bring a veteran team that includes seven returning starters from the nation's No. 7 scoring defense, as well as dynamic dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton. 

"We expect that they'll be every bit as good as last year," Whittingham said during his weekly conference on Tuesday. 

Last season's encounter certainly showed UU just how good this USU program (once the Beehive State's also-ran) has become. Keeton flourished, passing for 216 yards and two touchdowns and picking up another 86 yards on the ground. The defense stymied Utah for almost the entire first half, and in overtime when it counted most. 

The win over the Utes was no fluke, either. 

The Aggies were very nearly BCS bowl game busters in 2012, something Utah did twice as members of the Mountain West Conference. Their only losses were to Wisconsin and BYU by a combined five points. 

"Losing by one point, and by four points...is kind of the monkey on our back that we never got off," Keeton said at July's MWC media day. "The guys coming back remember that getting ready for this season." 

Coming so close to the BCS only further motivated the Aggies in the offseason, explained linebacker Zach Vigil. 

"[Playing in the BCS] is within our reach, and a goal that we obviously have. We're competitors and want to win every game," he said. 

To that end, Utah is now in the role that teams like Michigan and Oregon State, or Arizona, North Carolina and Texas A&M, filled for the Utes' two BCS-busting teams. 

When it made the Pac-10 into 12 two years ago, Utah ostensibly became Goliath to a program like Utah State's David. Realistically, UU is still adjusting. 

Part of acclimating to the Pac-12 included bringing on an offensive coordinator with experience as head coach at three different stops in the conference. Dennis Erickson provides veteran insight to complement the youthful exuberance of former Ute quarterback-turned-coordinator Brian Johnson. 

Rectifying the team's offensive woes from a year ago is vital for this season's Utes to rebound. Quarterback Travis Wilson is a centerpiece, playing in a quicker tempo system. 

Thursday should provide an accurate barometer of where that refurbishing project is along in the process, because the Utes' struggles were readily on display in last September's Utah State tilt. 

"We went 2-17 on third down against the Aggies last year," Whittingham said. Failure on third down consistently vexed the Utes' struggling offense, which ranked No. 106 in conversion percentage.

"If we're going to compete in the Pac-12, [converting on third down] has to happen," Whittingham said. 

Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45