Show of hands, how many people expected Utah State football to have a winning record at this point of the season?
There may be a small scattering of hands up around Aggie nation, but for the most part, this team has made everyone eat crow. Following last season’s debacle, much of the fan base was expecting another non-bowl season in Logan. Yet here Utah State stands, 6-5 with a certainly non-zero shot at reaching eight wins on the year. Going from three wins to eight would be the largest single-season jump in program history since 1953.
Earlier in the year, Air Force seemed like a great deterrent to that reality. But the Falcons have fallen to 4-7 following three straight defeats in which the team has only managed 33 combined points and is averaging 288 yards per game. Meanwhile, USU is coming off a 38-0 domination of Hawaii. What was once one of USU’s toughest games of the year now looks like a prime opportunity to finish as high as tied for second in the division.
As any game versus Air Force does, Utah State’s chances come down to their ability to corral the Falcons’ option attack. This season during wins, Air Force has averaged 455.8 yards rushing per game and 5.9 yards per rush. During losses, however, opponents have held Air Force to 206.4 yards rushing per game and only 3.9 yards per rush. The gameplan versus the Falcons is obvious: stop the run. Against the option, that’s easier said than done. USU’s defensive discipline will go a large way in deciding Saturday’s contest. Staying on assignments, and forcing rushers inside back towards defensive pursuit will be paramount for the Aggie defense.
Head coach Matt Wells knows this. Wells is 2-2 versus Air Force during his tenure. In those two Aggie victories, Air Force managed only a combined 317 rushing yards and lost three fumbles. The past two seasons, however, Air Force has amassed a combined 522 yards on the ground with six touchdowns and zero lost fumbles. Making matters worse is the Falcons’ propensity to throw the ball versus Utah State. Air Force has topped 100 yards passing versus Utah State in each of the past four season. New Mexico is the only other Mountain Division team to do so during the same timeframe.
The good news is USU’s only other game versus an option-based offense this season, New Mexico, resulted in one of the Aggies’ best defensive performances of the year. The Lobos entered the game averaging 5.2 yards per carry, 24th best in the country at the time. Removing a 34-yard TD run during garbage time, the Aggies held New Mexico to 3.9 yards per carry. Utah State’s defense remained disciplined through most of the game, and equally opportunistic, a characteristic that may resurface against an Air Force team ranked 119th in the nation for turnover margin.
Perhaps the easiest way to neutralize an option team is to build an early lead. Such has not been an Aggie strength this season, as USU has averaged only 7.2 points per first quarter this season. Luckily, the defense has only allowed 6.9 points per first quarter, though they have allowed multiple first quarter scores in four games this season. Overall, the Aggies have only held possession during the first quarter for 43 percent of the possible time. Jordan Love and Co. need to piece together a quality first drive on Saturday that results in points. A revitalized Lajuan Hunt who has topped 100 yards rushing in three of the past four games will again by crucial on Saturday.
There is reason to believe in this Utah State team again, and that is the most successful aspect of their season this year. The Aggies have a shot to quiet any remaining critics over the final stretch of the season. Corralling the Air Force option is the next step in doing so.
Kickoff is set for Saturday at 8:15 pm.