The Palouse, a God-forsaken, mostly uneven strip of farm land that sits in the Idaho panhandle and cheats over the Washington State line, is not a place for anyone to be during the winter months.
But it was the right spot for the Utah and Utah State football teams this past weekend.
At the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater river systems, both teams came of age on Saturday and one did so without feeling the harsh conditions this region usually brings.
The games the Utes and Aggies played eight miles apart went to double overtime, and both provided wild finishes that nobody will soon forget.
Not only that, both games kept both teams in position for late-season recognition that seemed so unlikely just a few weeks ago.
In a wind-swept, snowy field in Pullman, Washington the Utes got one step closer to a Pac-12 South Division title after defeating the Washington State Cougars 30-27 in double overtime Saturday.
The Utes rode running back John White to victory, again, and he didn’t disappoint with a 186-yard performance that puts him third all-time in the single-season rushing yardage record books at Utah, with one game still to play.
About eight miles away, in Moscow, Idaho it was Utah State who provided the late-game heroics, upending Idaho 49-42 in double OT at the Kibbie Dome. While this game was played indoors, away from the biting cold and howling winds of nearby Pullman, it didn’t disappoint in terms of overall play.
Utah State rode its own horse–with an assist to Michael Smith–as Robert Turbin rushed for a career-high 208 yards despite not having Chuckie Keeton in the starting lineup again. The Aggies also are now one game from becoming bowl-eligible.
“He’s [Turbin] a special young man. He came to me and said, “Coach, thanks for having faith in me after I made a mistake.” There is no question about my faith in Turbin. We want the ball in his hands, where it should be,” said Utah State head coach Gary Andersen.
The Utes and Aggies both ran the ball at will against their opponents, setting up a wild, unlikely season for both teams.
It’s hard to believe, frankly, that either team has made it to this point. Both teams lost their starting quarterbacks to injury, you know.
At one point, both were literally left for dead on the side of the college football highway.
The Utes seemed overmatched in this strange new world of the Pac-12, losing games late to teams that simply ran over and through them with this new power, pro-style game that Utah itself was learning on the fly.
To think that the Utes would do this without Jordan Wynn, their star QB, was almost unthinkable. But here they were, breaking in new quarterback Jon Hays, a guy who never played a down in Division I and was found at the last possible minute after a Division II school, Nebraska-Omaha, had abandoned its football program.
But what brought the Utes to this precipice wasn’t its offense. In all actuality, the offense minus White has been a huge disappointment. The defense, however, has been steady all season long, keeping the often punchless Utes in ballgames it shouldn’t have been in.
The Aggies, on the other hand, had a similar calling card, a strong defense and a ferocious running game. But what killed Utah State early on actually made it stronger towards the end of the season. Penalties and mental errors cost the Aggies victories late in games at Auburn, at BYU, and vs. Colorado State.
But by the end of the season, Utah State engineered comeback wins vs. San Jose State, at Hawaii and at Idaho to get to within one game of being bowl eligible for the first time since 1993, when Anthony Calvillo led the Aggies to their Las Vegas Bowl victory.
“Unbelievable. We continue to live on the edge,” said Andersen. “We’re finding a way to get those wins at the end.
What seemed so far off, through the wind-swept, unforgiving hills of the Palouse was realized Saturday, in an area where cultivating your identity is a way of life.
In so many ways, the Utes and Aggies’ seasons weren’t, and aren’t, so different after all.