0This is a series of in depth looks at the opponents the Utah State football team will be facing this season. The series will use Athlon Sports Top 130 pre-season rankings to consider where opponents are at on a national level and each week will preview a different opponent.
Week 3: Air Force (September 18th)
Record in 2020: 3-3 (2-2)
Record in 2019: 11-2 (7-1)
Record vs USU: 6-3
Athlon Ranking: 82nd
Key Losses: The entire offensive line, Matthew Murla (running back), Ben Peterson (receiver), Elisha Palm (cornerback), George Silvanic (defensive tackle)
Key Players Back: Haaziq Daniels (quarterback), Brad Roberts (running back), David Cormier (receiver), Kyle Patterson (tight end), Brandon Lewis (receiver), Milton Bug III (cornerback), Demonte Meeks (linebacker), Lakota Wills (outside linebacker), Jordan Jackson (defensive end)
Air Force is going to have some challenges going into the 2021 season due to the fact that they are replacing all five starters on the offensive line. The development of Haaziq Daniels will also need to continue if the Falcons want to find success early. Air Force has two reliable receivers in David Cormier and Brandon Lewis, both who have put in playing time, but will need to find other members to contribute. The return of leading rusher Brad Roberts, who had 461 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 64 attempts, should help the offense to run smoother.
Last season, Air Force ranked 72nd in total offense (389.3 yards per game), 94th in scoring offense (24.3 points per game), 12th in third down conversions (48.5%), 126th in passing offense (83.7 yards per game), 1st in rushing offense (305.7 yards per game), 117th in red zone offense (17 scores, 24 attempts; 70.8%), and 19th in turnovers lost (5 fumbles, three interceptions; 8 turnovers).
Obviously Air Force isn’t going to rank among the best passing offenses in the nation as a triple option team, but that doesn’t make passing for just 83.7 yards per game enough for a win. In order for any offense to be successful, there needs to be balance. Air Force was very good in 2019 with Donald Hammond III at quarterback because they were not only able to run the ball, but pass it effectively at points too. Part of the reason the passing game struggled last season was because of a new quarterback and lack of play makers at receiver. Haaziq Daniels and the passing game need to develop for Air Force to stay competitive. Another area that needs development is red zone offense. The Falcons cannot afford to give up opportunities to score, especially against teams such as Boise State and San Diego State.
Losing players that were able to produce last season in cornerback Elisha Palm and defensive tackle George Silvanic is not a good thing, but Air Force brings back a lot of talent on defense that should help Air Force to have one of the best defenses in the conference this upcoming season. Cornerback Milton Bug III, linebacker Demonte Meeks, outside linebacker Lakota Wills, and defensive end Jordan Jackson all return. A player that could make a impact early is Isaiah Henderson, an edge defender out of Virginia Beach, Virginia who could provide talent up front.
Last season, the Falcons ranked 6th in total defense, giving up 303.2 yards per game, 5.06 yards per play. Air Force also ranked 3rd in scoring defense (15 points per game), 105th in third down defense (46.6%), 12th in first downs allowed (106), 4th in red zone defense (13 attempts, 9 scores; 69.2%), and 98th in turnovers gained (5 interceptions, 3 fumbles; 8 total).
While Air Force’s defense was actually pretty good last season and ranked near the top nationally, there are two glaring areas that need to be addressed for the defense to consistently play better. The Falcons are good in terms of not allowing opponents to convert downs early on but need to do better in stopping opponents on third down because a near 47% conversion rate for the opposing offense is not a good thing. The other area that Air Force needs to improve in is forcing turnovers. The Falcons forced 8 total in a shortened season and in 2019 forced 14 turnovers. There needs to be a greater emphasis on putting pressure on the opposing offense but with a number of returning talent and new talent coming in, Air Force could very well deliver this season and force more turnovers.
Air Force is not a easy opponent to beat and is typically in contention for the Mountain Division title. Utah State will likely be 1-1 at this point but the big question is can Utah State find solutions to get their offense going before the game against Air Force. If this game was in Logan and the Aggies had their fans behind them, there is a good chance that could get them going. This game is in Colorado Springs however, and Air Force is a formidable opponent when at home. I would expect the Falcons’ defense to set the tone early on and keep Utah State from doing much offensively.