Wheel deal: Coveted prize on line for No. 13 BYU, Utah State

No. 13 BYU and Utah State players have something quite heavy on their minds — a wagon wheel.

This is not just an ordinary pioneer-era wagon wheel, either, but “The Old Wagon Wheel,” which goes to the winner in the rivalry between the Cougars and the Aggies.

It’s weighty. It’s significant. It’s again up for grabs Friday night when the Aggies (3-1) host the Cougars (4-0) in Logan, Utah. BYU has taken control of the wheel for the past two years, courtesy of a win in 2019 and not playing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the Cougars, their eye isn’t necessarily on this prize so much as keeping their roll going. They’re looking for their sixth 5-0 start in program history. The previous ones were 1979, ’81, ’01, ‘08 and ’20.

“I want my guys to be more focused on playing the game, rather than what trophy we could get after,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

First-year Utah State coach Blake Anderson has heard all about the significance of winning the wagon wheel since arriving in town. He understands the importance of a tradition that started in 1948. But the more pressing priority is getting back on track after losing 27-3 to Boise State last week.

“We can’t be nearly as focused on BYU as we can at us getting better,” said Anderson, who arrived at Utah State from Arkansas State. “I want to beat BYU as bad as anybody in the Cache Valley, but for different reasons. This happens to be the next opportunity for us to show what we’re capable of. … Hopefully Friday night we look like the team we’re really capable of being.”

Utah State has a 5-62 all-time mark against AP-ranked teams. The Cougars are the highest-ranked team to pay a visit to Maverik Stadium since No. 6 Boise State in ’09.

“They present a million problems,” Anderson said. “Cleary the best-built football team we have played. It will just ramp it up another notch this week. Huge challenge.”

A challenge the Aggies are eager to take on, especially with “The Old Wagon Wheel” on the line.

“They’re going to be energized. We’re going to be energized,” Aggies receiver Derek Wright said. “It’s going to be a fun time.”

CONNECTIONS

The Aggies have 38 players in the program hailing from Utah. BYU boasts around 60 from the Beehive State.

There are plenty of program ties, too — Utah State sophomore defensive end Darius McFarland transferred from BYU. The Cougars have offensive lineman Hunter Hill and cornerback Jakob Robinson, who both began at Utah State.

Of course, Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards was a standout player with the Aggies from 1949-51. Edwards was inducted into the Utah State Hall of Fame in 2011.

Edwards led BYU to a national title in 1984 and BYU’s stadium is named in his honor.

CONNECTED

BYU and Utah State were members of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference from 1922-37 and then the Mountain States/Skyline Conference from 1938-61. Utah State went 21-13-3 against BYU as division rivals.

ON THE ROAD

This will be BYU’s first true road test. The Cougars beat Arizona 24-16 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to open the season.

“We’re excited just for the challenge to play away, to kind of hear the boos,” BYU receiver Neil Pau’u said. “I know a lot of athletes get up for that when they hear boos and they hear taunting. Utah State definitely is hostile. We will be more than capable with coming out with the ‘W’ as long as we keep our composure and stuff.”

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Sitake boasts a 7-3 record at BYU playing on a Friday. Meanwhile, the Aggies are 23-31-1 all-time in Friday night games. They did beat North Dakota 48-24 at home on Friday, Sept. 10.

ROMNEY TO ROMNEY

This will be long remembered in the Romney household: Gunner caught a 47-yard pass from his brother, Baylor, against South Florida. Baylor was filling in for a banged-up Jaren Hall, who may play against Utah State.

“It was one of the coolest touchdowns I have caught because my brother deserves that and everything he gets for how hard he has worked for it,” Gunner said. “Really that is what made it so cool.”

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AP freelance writer John Coon contributed to this report.

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