The Mountain West Conference suffered through one of the most disappointing starts of any conference this past weekend, and the Utah State Aggies felt their part of that disappointment as they come off a frustrating first week loss to in-state rival Utah. Meanwhile, the Air Force Falcons are coming off lackluster first week win over FCS opponent Colgate. The two teams will meet this Saturday in the first conference game of the year with both hoping to start off the conference schedule better than they started the season.
Utah State went into Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium last Thursday strutting and primping after last season's success, feeling ready to take on the world. When conservative play calling and a series of unfortunate events led to their four-point loss, what they had been hoping would be an introduction to a new era of Aggie dominance turned into a wakeup call.
Air Force, meanwhile, beat their opponent by 24 points, which in most cases would be a rather dominant showing. Given that their opponent was an FCS team that went 8-4 against FCS competition last year, however, there needs to be a little perspective added. First, they still allowed 300 yards of offense (split evenly between passing and rushing). Second, they had 75 yards of penalties and lost the time of possession battle by six minutes (not a huge margin, but with a team that runs to ball almost exclusively as AFA does it's a bigger deal than it sounds). And third, the Falcons lost their starting quarterback, Kale Pearson, to a (probably) season-ending ACL injury.
USU comes into this game looking to prove that they do belong in the Mountain West, and that last season's 11-2 record and WAC conference championship were not a fluke. Air Force comes into this game looking to show that a big win last week wasn't due to a weak opponent, and that they can finally factor as a player in the MWC conference championship race. The Falcons have won just three conference championships in their history; only one of the three was not shared with another team, and the most recent was 15 years ago.
Comparing the two teams head to head is a little difficult, given the limited scope of the playing time we've been able to observe, and the differences between their only opponents. That being said, there are a few observations we can make. For USU, there are stars littering the field from top to bottom, none brighter than quarterback Chuckie Keeton. If you haven't heard that name yet, you've been living under a rock.
Keeton was nominated to numerous awards' watch lists, with very good reason. He may be the single most dynamic QB in the country, and is easily the most versatile quarterback in the conference. Keeton completed 78 percent of his passes against Utah for 314 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, as well as rushing (scrambling, more specifically) 15 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. Air Force's game plan has to be to stop Keeton if they are going to have any hope to win this game.
For the Falcons it doesn't seem to really matter who's at the helm, the offense keeps on rolling. After Pearson went down in last week's game, backup Jaleel Awini stepped in seamlessly, completing two-thirds (literally, two out of three passes) of his throws for 26 yards, and facilitating a run game that continued to rack up the yards and points. The key for USU will be maintaining discipline and following their defensive assignments which is not an easy thing to do against the triple option, as many teams can attest.