Toledo, USU poised for Potato Bowl matchup
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — In so many ways, 2012 has been a season of firsts for Utah State.
The No. 18 Aggies set new school marks with 10 wins and six home victories. They won their first outright conference title since 1936.
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The Aggies (10-2) reached new heights behind one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, an opportunistic offense and a senior class that has been one of the best ever recruited to campus.
Yet despite all the accolades and achievements, fourth-year coach Gary Andersen knows there is one more milestone yet to be crossed off this year’s list.
“For me, this team will always go down as one of the special groups I’ve ever been around for what they’ve accomplished,” Andersen said. “What they’ve accomplished to this point, no one can ever take away from them.
“We’ve been able to get a couple of championships on our wall since we’ve been there. But we don’t have a bowl game trophy up there yet, and we need to be able to get that done.”
The Aggies will get their shot when they square off with Toledo (9-3) in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Saturday on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium in Boise. The game is one of two marking the kickoff of college football’s frenzied bowl season.
In their first-ever meeting, Utah State is favored by 10 points. But if the history of this bowl game is any guide, this matchup between teams from the WAC and MAC will be fun to watch, tight and likely decided in the final minutes. Last year, Ohio scored a touchdown with 13 seconds remaining to knock off the Aggies 24-23.
That loss left a bitter taste, but also laid the foundation for the team’s goals and mindset heading into 2012, said senior cornerback Will Davis.
“Last year we didn’t get it done … now we’re back in the same spot and it’s like a second chance. You don’t want to lose a second chance, a second opportunity,” said Davis, who leads the Aggies with five interceptions.
For Toledo, it’s a chance for coach Matt Campbell to put a stamp on his first full year at the helm.
Last season, Campbell, who at 33 is the youngest coach in FBS ranks, took over after Tim Beckman was lured away to Illinois and guided the Rockets to victory over Air Force in the Military Bowl. This year, Campbell has led a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode after losing a big batch of talented seniors. Campbell and his staff were also forced to deal with injuries to a handful of key players on both sides of the ball.
Yet the team found ways to win. During one stretch, Toledo won eight straight, including an upset of then-No. 18 Cincinnati, crept into national polls and for the first time in school history cracked the BCS standings.
“Last year we had a really talented football team,” Campbell said. “This year’s senior class, there are a lot of guys that have played a lot of football. Maybe it’s not the big-name guys, but their leadership … has been outstanding. I really think it set the foundation for our football program for not only this year, but for years to come.”
Toledo’s injury woes also occurred at quarterback. Junior Terrance Owens, the starter who threw for 2,677 yards and 14 touchdowns, missed the finale against Akron with an ankle sprain. Backup Austin Dantin ensured the offense didn’t miss a beat, throwing for a career-best 327 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-23 win over the Zips.
Campbell said Thursday he wanted to see how Owens performed in practice before making a decision on his starting quarterback.
“I would expect to see both playing in the game,” Campbell said.
Either way, the Toledo offense is likely facing its toughest challenge of the season against Utah State’s defense.
The Aggie defense is ranked in the top 15 in points allowed (15.4), total yards allowed and rushing defense. The Aggies also average 3.2 sacks per game and have only allowed opponents 13 touchdowns in 39 trips inside the red zone.
“The most staggering statistic is the first quarter, and allowing only six points all season,” Campbell said. “They try to take away your best players and they do a good job of that.”
Toledo’s offense is led by all-conference tailback David Fluellen. The junior has rushed for 1,460 yards, eighth among FBS running backs. He has 13 TDs and three games with more than 200 yards rushing. He’s also a threat on passing plays, and his 32 catches are third best on the team.
“When you sit back and look at them and really break them down, you see they have a very powerful run game,” Andersen said. “They are able to run the ball consistently week in and week out, regardless of opponent. We’ll have a good challenge for our defense.”