The battle for the Mountain division championship is starting to come into focus as the season starts to wind down, and when the Utah State Aggies travel to Colorado Springs to battle with the Air Force Falcons, one team will step forward and the other team could be out of the race. Air Force still controls their own destiny as they enter a brutal three game stretch starting this Saturday with their final home game against the Aggies. Having already lost to Colorado State, Air Force can not afford to drop this home game versus Utah State if they hope to capture the division championship and a berth in the Conference title game. What will it take for the Falcons to capture victory Saturday versus Utah State?
The offense has to be special
Offensive explosions against Fresno State and Hawaii have masked the fact that the Air Force offense has struggled under senior quarterback Karson Roberts. The pitch game in the triple option has really struggled, with Roberts especially struggling when he has to pitch with his left hand. Roberts is also not a strong passer, often under throwing balls that would lead to bigger plays if they were delivered on time and leading the receiver. Roberts is a strong runner however, and if he makes the proper reads on the option plays the Falcons offense has a good mix of inside and outside running. With fullback D.J. Johnson back in the mix and Jacobi Owens running well from both the fullback and tailback positions, the Falcons seem to be getting healthier at the right time.
What the offense has to do is not turn the ball over like they have in their three losses. Utah State is arguably the best defense in the Mountain West, and they will capitalize on those mistakes. The Falcons found some success in the passing game last week and Jalen Robinette and Garrett Brown are as good of wide receiver targets as their are in the conference. Mix in a healthy Garrett Griffin at tight end, who scored two touchdowns against Army last week, and the Falcons have weapons in the passing game. The ability to make plays in the passing game will be important because sustained success against Utah State if you are one-dimensional is extremely unlikely. It will be the biggest key of the game for Roberts to find and get his targets touches in space with the passing game.
The defense has to force turnovers
The Falcons could be catching Utah State at the right time after the Aggies struggled mightily versus New Mexico last weekend, only scoring 13 points in a devastating loss for Utah State. The Aggies were held to 294 yards of total offense last week at New Mexico, and the Falcons have been better defensively than the Lobos all season. What Utah State doesn't do however, is turn the ball over much, especially now that Kent Myers has taken over at quarterback. Myers has only thrown one interception on the year. Having Hunter Sharp at wide receiver gives the Aggies some explosion on the outside, and the Falcons will have to keep him under control. The Falcons put their cornerbacks on an island a lot to commit a safety to help stop the running game, so Roland Ladipo and Jesse Washington will be pressed to keep Sharp at bay.
For the Falcons to win, they are going to have to set up their offense two or three times on a short field. Going back to Air Force's biggest victory last season against Boise State, the Falcons were only able to turn seven turnovers into 28 points. It is highly unlikely that the Falcons can produce seven turnovers again, but if they can get their offense the ball in good field position it will help the offense score some easier points. Weston Steelhammer is the key to the turnover game, because of his versatility in both the run and pass defense. Steelhammer is also a ball hawk who just seems to find the ball when it is in the air or on the ground. If Steelhammer and the defense can get three turnovers, the Falcons have a great chance at victory.
Air Force has had very little success against Utah State since the Aggies have entered the Mountain West. Utah State destroyed the Falcons 52-20 in 2013 and last season, the Aggies cruised to a 34-16 win in Logan. This is a huge opportunity for the Falcons, and this game has the makings to be a low scoring affair. I picked the Falcons in my preseason predictions to pull the upset over the Aggies, and I will stand by that prediction with a score of 17-14 Air Force.