It’s fair to say Oct. 26, 2019, was a date several Utah State football players would like to forget.
That’s because it was the first of back-to-back poor performances for the Aggies, who got absolutely dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage against Air Force, and then struggled mightily in the second half a week later against BYU. AFA finished with an eye-popping 448-14 edge in rushing yards, coupled with a 45:43 to 14:17 advantage in time of possession, en route to a 31-7 triumph at home over USU that wasn’t even as close as the final score suggested.
USU senior Nick Heninger, for one, is extremely motivated to get a measure of redemption. He will have that opportunity as the Aggies welcome the Falcons to Maverik Stadium on Thursday night for their home finale. Opening kickoff from Merlin Olsen Field is scheduled for 7:30 and the contest will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.
“When I think of last year’s game, there were definitely some plays and some players that I still remember,” Heninger said. “Let’s just say that I’m ready to take the fight to them because I feel like they got us last year and my plan is to never let that happen again as a defense, especially, but I’m planning on dominating my fight.”
Heninger and company will certainly need to fare much better this time around in order for the Aggies to enjoy their first two-game winning streak since back-to-back victories over Fresno State and Wyoming a year ago. It will be a massive challenge against an Air Force offense that has five senior starters in the trenches and ranks first among all FBS programs in rushing offense (338.1 yards per game) and time of possession (34:23).
Conversely, USU’s offense must also find a way to run the ball efficiently against a stingy Air Force defense. Despite only having one returning starter on that side of the ball, the Falcons rank 15th nationally in rushing defense (105.0 ypg), 18th in total defense (324.5 ypg) and fourth in red zone defense. Additionally, opponents are only converting third downs at a 38.1 percent clip against Air Force, which, on the flip side, has been very good offensively in those situations (48.0 percent conversion rate).
The Aggies will surely have to piece together their best performance on both sides of the line of scrimmage to reign supreme Thursday.
“If we can’t establish those two things on either side of the ball, then it’s going to be a long football game,” USU interim head coach Frank Maile said. “... Air Force is coached very well, (they’re) very disciplined and so the challenge — and our kids will embrace the challenge every week, man — is to be more physical than they are.”
Fortunately for the Aggies, they are coming off what was far and away their best game of the season — a 41-27 victory over visiting New Mexico on Thanksgiving. USU finished with season-best tallies in most major offensive and defensive categories, and shined on special teams en route to sweeping the weekly Mountain West awards.
This appears to be a much more confident USU squad, and that positive mindset will be needed against a well-rested opponent in Air Force. The Falcons (2-2) have only played once since losing to Boise State on Halloween — a 28-0 triumph over visiting New Mexico on Nov. 20.
“I was just actually thinking earlier that I was on a winning team my freshman year when we went 11-2, and it obviously felt good,” said USU quarterback Andrew Peasley, who accounted for 357 yards of total offense and four touchdowns against the Lobos. “Winning felt normal when I first showed up, and then kind of slowly we started losing. And then this year starting off 0-4, the team was just like, ‘man, this is hard, this is no fun.’ So, I think the win last Thursday really gave us confidence, and I think the guys really liked that feeling of winning, so ... we want to get more.”
Veteran Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun was certainly impressed with Peasley. This is Calhoun’s 14th season at the helm of the program and he has a record of 100-71 during that timespan.
“(USU’s) quarterback is a really, really good player,” Calhoun said. “He moves well, he throws well, (he’s) extremely talented. (He) had a big-time run last week.”
Peasley finished with 118 of USU’s season-high 209 yards on the ground against the Lobos, and the play Calhoun was referring to was a dynamic 62-yard scamper to paydirt in the fourth quarter. Air Force completely stymied the rushing attacks of Navy and San Jose State, but Boise State and New Mexico enjoyed a fair amount of success on the ground.
The Aggies are hopeful that trend continues for both teams. Regardless, USU’s defense must be disciplined snap after snap against the well-oiled machine that is Air Force’s triple option.
“We’ve got to beat them at their own game,” Maile said. “These guys are masters of discipline. That’s what they do for a living. It’s bigger than football for those guys. You know, they signed up for more than just sports. Those guys at some point of their career are going to be protecting our country and so it means a lot to those guys. ... The thing about the triple option is there’s three phases of that deal — the dive, the quarterback or the pitch, and so everyone’s got to be where they’re supposed to be and we’ve got to beat them at their own game. ... For us, we’ve got to get hats to the football. Everyone’s got to be disciplined with their (responsibilities) ... pre-snap to post-snap, and we’ve just got to play fast, physical football with these guys.”
Per usual, winning the turnover battle will be crucial. The Falcons only turned the ball over twice in their first three contests, but coughed it up three times against the Lobos. Air Force has five takeaways and giveaways apiece this fall.
Meanwhile, USU’s defense has come up with two takeaways in each of the last two games after forcing none in each of the first three. The Aggies have committed eight turnovers during the 2020 campaign.
• Fans will be allowed in Thursday’s home finale — up to 22 percent of the stadium’s capacity, so approximately 5,350.
• The Falcons have won four of their last five games against the Aggies and lead the all-time series 5-3. Of those four AFA victories, three were decided by seven points or fewer.
• Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in first-time starters this season — the Falcons third with 24, and the Aggies ninth with 19.
• Six of USU’s coaches, plus four graduate assistants, have missed at least one game this season due to COVID-19.