The chance to keep pace with Boise State in the Mountain Division is on the line for Utah State’s football team in its pivotal Mountain West showdown with Air Force on Saturday night at Falcon Stadium.
The Falcons (5-2, 3-1 MW) host the Aggies (4-2, 3-0) at 8:15 p.m. in a game televised nationally on ESPN2. This is surely a must-win contest for Air Force in its quest for a Mountain West title, while USU would remain one of only two unbeaten teams in conference play with a victory.
“It’s a huge challenge this week,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said at his weekly press conference. “Air Force is not a good team, but a great team in all areas: offense, defense and special teams. Their offense is firing on all cylinders and their defense is very opportunistic. ... The bottom line is this has been built up now and the guys on both teams have made this a big game, so congratulations to the teams on both sides. It’s a big football game and that’s why you play, is to get into big moments and big games.”
Winning at Falcon Stadium is always a formidable task for opposing teams, and that’s no doubt the case in 2019. AFA won each of its three previous home games by at least 17 points, including a 19-point triumph over defending MW champion Fresno State two weeks ago. The Falcons have outscored the opposition by a 132-55 margin at home and have put up at least 41 points in each of those contests.
Per usual, the Falcons have been dynamic running the football as they average 304.6 an outing on the ground, which ranks second among all FBS teams, only behind Navy. Four Air Force players have rushed for more than 100 yards in a game this season, and three of them — Mike Schmidt, Timothy Jackson Kadin Remsberg — combined for a whopping 324 yards and six touchdowns in last Saturday’s 56-26 drubbing of Hawaii on the road.
What has made the Falcons’ especially dangerous this season in their ability to gain chunk yardage in the passing game. AFA currently ranks first nationally in yards per completion with 23.4. Standout senior wide receiver Geraud Sanders has racked up 479 yards on just 20 receptions, and has hauled in four touchdowns, including a 75-yarder against Hawaii.
“Air Force is always a tough team and they are always a tough offense to go against,” USU defensive back Andre Grayson said. “The biggest difference that I’ve seen this year from the past game that (we played against them) was a lot more passing. One of the receivers had over 100 yards receiving and that’s not typical of Air Force, so that just adds to their explosive offense.”
Another AFA wideout, senior Ben Waters, is averaging an eye-popping 32.4 yards on nine catches — one of which was an 81-yarder. The passing attack is a big reason why the Falcons hold down the top spot in the Mountain West in scoring offense (37.4 points per game).
This is a very disciplined AFA team, one that ranks second nationally in fewest penalty yardage an outing with 30.4. The Falcons have been whistled for a mere 24 total penalties in seven games in 2019.
The Falcons returned a lot of starters from their 2018 squad, including four offensive linemen. The battle in the trenches will be particularly intriguing as the Aggies have arguably more depth on the defensive line than any other team in the MW.
“You have to have on your big-boy pants and hop in the trenches and battle those guys,” Andersen said. “That’s why it’s such a great opportunity because it is unique. That (AFA) offense is built to grind you down and beat you up. You’ll know if you’re a tough guy at the end of that game if you come out of there and you held your own against that offense, especially inside the tackle box.”
DJ Hammond III, AFA’s starting quarterback, is a very good athlete, but he left the Hawaii game early in the first quarter with an injury. Unfortunately for the Warriors, the Falcons didn’t skip a beat with back-up signal caller Mike Schmidt, who rushed for 120 yards and three scores, and completed 5 of 6 passes for 147 yards and the aforementioned TD to Sanders. For his efforts, the senior was selected as the MW Offensive Player of the Week.
Air Force has been very efficient on third downs as it has converted a league-leading 52.4 percent of the time.
It’s also been a good season so far for the AFA defense, which ranks third in the Mountain West in total defense (335.6 ypg) and rushing defense (104.0 ypg). Only two of the Falcons’ opponents have gained more than 100 yards on the ground.
The Air Force defense is anchored by 330-pound nose guard Mosese Fifita, who has forced two fumbles and recovered another two, in addition to recording 24 tackles.
“Their defense is physical and their nose guard is 330 pounds,” Andersen said. “He’s a talented football player. They’re big, they’re strong and they run in the back end very well. The thing that they do, is if you look at it, they limit snaps. I believe against Fresno State there was 45ish total snaps in a football game (for the Bulldogs), and that’s a credit to their defense getting off the field, and that’s a credit to their offense.”
Demonte Meeks leads the Falcons with 49 tackles, while fellow linebacker Kyle Johnson is right behind with 43. Meeks also paced the team with 6.5 tackles per loss and is tied with defense end Jordan Jackson with a team-high 2.5 sacks. Johnson was AFA’s second-leading tackler a year ago with 70.
Air Force cornerback Milto Bugg III is currently in a five-way tie for second in the conference with a trio of interceptions, one of which he returned 92 yards for a TD against Hawaii.
The Falcons have always excelled at blocking kicks under head coach Troy Calhoun, and this year is no different. AFA has already blocked a pair of kicks and extra point attempts.
Kicker Jake Koehnke has been successful on all seven of his field goals attempts, while punter Charlie Scott has averaged 40.9 yards on his 14 punts.
Notes: USU is looking to start 4-0 in conference play for only the second time since joining the MW prior to the 2013-14 academic year. ... The last four USU-AFA games has been decided by 10 points or fewer. ... The Falcons have already matched their win total from the previous two seasons. ... Teams have only managed three sacks and 22 tackles for loss against the Falcons.