The Air Force Falcons get their first real test of the young 2016 season when they travel to take on their divisional foe the Utah State Aggies this Saturday night in Logan, Utah. The Falcons stand at 2-0 on the young season with relatively easy victories over Abilene Christian and Georgia State. The Falcons will be looking to improve on their record of 12-5 in Mountain West openers, including a record of 5-2 when they open conference play on the road.
Air Force has been their typical selves early in the season with their running game functioning at high octane. The Falcons are currently averaging 432.5 yards per game on the ground, which is the top figure in the nation. The Falcons are using that powerful run game to score 42.5 points per game and keep their time of possession at an almost unbelievable 39:51 average. If the Falcons can continue to keep the ball for nearly 40 minutes a game it makes the odds of them repeating as Mountain Division champs tremendously high. The Falcons are converting third downs at a 59% rate while holding their opponents to a 38% success rate. Those are key numbers for the Air Force offense whose focus is to stay in manageable down and distance situations and keep the chains moving.
In the match up with Utah State, the Falcons will be facing an Aggie defense that only allows 118.7 yards per game on the ground. In last year's meeting however, the Falcons displayed superiority in both the run and pass games as they combined for 580 yards of total offense. The three main rushers for that game were fullback D.J. Johnson, tailback Jacobi Owens and receiver/running back Tyler Williams who combined for 216 yards and three touchdowns. All three return and are joined by fullback Shayne Davern and tailback Timothy McVey to give the Falcons a balanced and dangerous rushing attack.
The running game really opened things up for wide receiver Jalen Robinette who had his best game as a Falcon in the game with Utah State catching seven passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. Robinette is off to a slow start this season as the timing in the passing game has not been there yet with the return of quarterback Nate Romine. Air Force hasn't needed to make plays in the passing game as of yet with their dominance on the ground, but the game Saturday figures to be the first test for Romine to make plays with his arm, as he has only been successful on eight of his 19 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons have weapons around Robinette for Romine with tight end Ryan Reffitt and wide receivers Ronald Cleveland and Williams all having big play ability.
If there has been a concern for the Falcons early, it is on the defensive side of the ball. The pass defense has been shaky, with senior cornerback Roland Ladipo yet to play this season. Fortunately for the Falcons, Abilene Christian and Georgia State were not able to take advantage of open receivers in the Air Force secondary. In the Georgia State game alone, the Panther quarterbacks missed three or four wide open receivers that would have either extended drives or scored touchdowns. It is expected Ladipo will return this week, which will be a nice boost for the Falcons defense who has shut down the running games of their opponents. The Falcons were torched by Utah State quarterback Kent Myers last year for 364 yards and four touchdowns, so Ladipo is definitely returning at the right time of the year.
The winner of this game will take a huge first step forward in the highly competitive Mountain Division of the conference. With powerhouse Boise State playing well and Wyoming being the early surprise of the season, the Mountain Division is even stronger than it has been before. If Air Force wants to defend its divisional championship, winning the game in Logan is a must on Saturday.