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Air Force vs. Utah State: Keys to Win for Air Force

The Mountain West opener for both Air Force and Utah State comes with perks for the winner and leaves the loser in scramble mode for the season.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Florida Atlantic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Game Time: 8:15 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN2

Matchup history: Air Force leads series 4-2 - Air Force has won last 3 meetings

Current Records: Air Force 1-1 Utah State 2-1

Last Meeting: Last Year - Nov. 25th - Air Force 38 Utah State 35

A late night kickoff in Logan, Utah should provide lots of action for fans of both schools and football fans across the western region as the Air Force Falcons and the Utah State Aggies renew their conference rivalry in the opening of conference play for both schools. The Falcons and Aggies have engaged in tight, hard fought games since Utah State joined the conference in 2013, with the last three games all being decided by seven points or less. Last year’s game was up for grabs and it wasn’t decided until last two minutes of the game. Air Force quarterback Isaiah Sanders scored a touchdown from ten yards out with 1:38 left on the clock to give Air Force its three point victory. The contest in 2018 could come right down to the final seconds again, but what will it take for Air Force to extend their current winning streak over Utah State to four games?

Improved pass defense by the Falcons

There is no polite way to describe the porous pass defense by Air Force two weeks ago versus Florida Atlantic. While the Falcons had their sights set on stopping the Owls All-American running back Devin Singletary, they let first year starter Chris Robinson make swiss cheese of their secondary. Robinson would go for 471 yards against the Falcons, with two receivers going well over 100 yards and a third with 75 yards. It was an ugly performance by Air Force that they were almost able to overcome, but in the end the Falcons defense gave up way too many yards in the air to obtain a victory.

Utah State is a balance offensive team, but they have to be looking at exploiting the Falcons defense in the air this week. The Aggies, who are scoring an eye opening 54.7 point a game, average 260.7 yards a game passing. Quarterback Jordan Love can sling the football around, and has three trusted receivers in Dax Raymond, Ron’quavion Tarver and Jordan Nathan to move the football in the air. Air Force will more than likely stack the box to stop the running duo of Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright, but if the secondary doesn’t come up with better coverage, Love will make plays in the air. One thing in the young season that Love has shown is a tendency to throw interceptions. He has thrown three early in the season, and the Air Force secondary led by seniors Dailen Sutton and Garrett Kauppila need to ball hawk and take advantage of any mistakes the sophomore quarterback from Utah State makes in the game.

Air Force needs to pound the rock

In their first matchup against a group of five opponent, the Falcons were only able to gain 209 yards rushing for a less than impressive 3.7 yards per attempt. That currently puts Air Force outside the top 10 teams in the nation in rushing yards. The top 10 has been the Falcons home for as long as the academy has been playing option football, so the Falcons need to rediscover their offense that usually averages over 300 yards a game on the ground. The Aggies have been vulnerable to the run in 2018, giving up 426 yards on the ground in their three games so far this season.

One thing that would benefit the entire offense is getting some sort of settled situation in the quarterback position. The depth chart for this week’s game list both senior Arion Worthman and junior Isaiah Sanders as starting. It is the same situation as the Florida Atlantic game, which eventually saw Sanders get the start. Sanders at this moment provides more in the passing game, as he went 8 of 13 for 164 and a touchdown versus Florida Atlantic. Sanders is more of a known for Utah State however, as he started the game last year and torched the Aggies defense for 196 yards rushing and three touchdowns. If Worthman is not injured, head coach Troy Calhoun could be playing mind games with the Aggies and unleash the quarterback they haven’t seen yet. Or, at some point they might both see action in the same game. Whoever is under center however, needs to let fullbacks Cole Fagan and Taven Birdow pound at the heart of the Utah State defense to open up outside lanes for the quarterback and tailbacks Joseph Saucier, Nolan Eriksen and Kadin Remsberg.

Crystal Ball

Air Force’s subpar performance in pass defense is more than likely a bi-product of the emphasis the team had on Singletary. They dared Robinson to beat them and he delivered. This week, the team has a much better understanding of Love, as he started against them last year in the game. The Falcons will still focus on the running game of Utah State, but should have a better feel for what Love can and can’t do well in the passing game. Offensively, no matter what quarterback starts, the fullback combo of Fagan and Birdow should soften up the defense and allow the Falcons to come up with some big pitch plays. The Falcons will come up with some sort of big play in special teams like they did last week, that will be the difference in a fantastic, back and forth game in Logan, with the Falcons squeaking out a 31-28 victory over Utah State.