There’s no question the 2019 college football season has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride for the Aggies, but they have showcased some toughness and have been rewarded with a 3-0 start to Mountain West play.

Notwithstanding their solid start, we’re about to find out if the Aggies are legitimate conference title contenders. You see, Utah State has the daunting task of squaring off against what I believe is the best Air Force squad since the Aggies joined the MW prior to the 2013-14 academic year.

Even when the Falcons are only mediocre, they rarely lose at home, which is where Saturday’s showdown with the Aggies will be. Case in point: Air Force is 27-6 at Falcon Stadium since the 2014 campaign. Additionally, the Falcons have only posted a losing record once at home since Troy Calhoun was hired as the head coach prior to the 2007 season.

I don’t think there’s any question this year’s Air Force is one of the best in the Mountain West. The Falcons have posted solid road wins over Colorado and Hawaii — the second of which was in dominating fashion — plus they roughed up Fresno State at home. AFA’s two loses were competitive road games against Boise State and Navy, which currently have a combined record of 11-2.

Per usual, the Falcons are one of the top-ranked rushing teams at the FBS level as they are currently second at 304.6 yards an outing. However, this year’s Falcon rushing attack is even more dynamic than normal thanks to guys like Kadin Remsberg, who was a very good high school sprinter. Additionally, the Falcons have an elite receiver as their disposal in senior Geraud Sanders, who is averaging nearly 70 yards per game.

Air Force has also been rock solid on the other side of the ball as it ranks in the top 30 nationally in total defense (30th, 335.6 ypg) and rushing defense (20th, 104.0 ypg). Indeed, we’ll quickly find out what USU is made of Saturday night in The Centennial State.

And while prevailing at Falcon Stadium will be a massive challenge, I do think the Aggies will be prepared. Make no mistake, USU puts in a massive amount of time game planning for Air Force.

“Camp, spring ball, bye weeks, the day after Christmas. Whenever we find an opportunity to squeeze in a few moments of Air Force, we’ll absolutely do it,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said during Monday’s press conference. “You have to, in my opinion. That goes back to how many years I’ve played them. I’ve been on both sides of that thing where we’ve played very well and where we have not played very well. I do know this: if you don’t play well in all three phases in this game, you won’t win.”

I firmly believe the Aggies won’t emerge victorious this Saturday if they don’t break out of their funk in the passing game. In his last three games, USU quarterback Jordan Love has only completed 47.8 percent of his passes for 503 yards and three touchdowns, vs. six interceptions.

I still think Love and company will find a way to get back on track in the passing game this season, but it must happen this Saturday. AFA’s pass defense has been suspect this fall as opponents have completed 64.4 percent of their passes for an average of 231.6 ypg. The Falcons, who ranked 74th nationally in passing defense, have allowed 12 TD receptions, vs. only four INTs.

Love has fared well against Air Force in the past as he as thrown for 650 yards and four scoring passes in his two previous encounters with the Falcons. However, the ’19 version of USU doesn’t have a big, physical wideout like Ron’quavion Tarver, who absolutely wreaked havoc against the Falcons during his three seasons in Logan. In three games against AFA, Tarver hauled in 22 receptions for 357 yards and two TDs. Tarver also had a TD reception wiped away due to a bogus offensive pass interference call.

A year ago, the Aggies managed to defeat the Falcons 42-32 at Maverik Stadium, despite getting destroyed in the time of possession battle, 43:40 to 16:20. Air Force ran a program-record 107 plays in that contest.

In order to prevail at Falcon Stadium, the Aggies must sustain some drives, which has been very problematic as of late. How problematic? Well, 15 of USU’s last 17 possessions have lasted fewer than two minutes.

“That can’t take place again, especially against the opponent that we’re playing this week,” Andersen said. “If that takes place, you won’t win. That’s the bottom line. There is pride in the work we have to get done. We know where we’re at. We’re all looking at it as coaches and players.”

The Aggies must also find a way to limit the Falcons to some field goals when they get in the red zone, which is no easy task. That’s because AFA has found paydirt on 25 of its 33 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line this season. USU’s defense has performed reasonably well in the red zone, particularly against the run inside the 10-yard line.

“Our success in the red zone is definitely a testament to the defensive line,” USU defensive back Andre Grayson said. “They’re relentless. They get through the cracks of the O-line play after play, and that makes it a lot easier for our safeties to step up, our linebackers to step up and fill those holes and make those stops. That’s what we’re going to need. We’re going to need a lot of toughness when it gets down there, because Air Force is really effective and we know that.”

Grayson and the rest of USU’s secondary will need to tackle well and play assignment sound football against the Falcons. Will they be up the challenge?

I definitely think Aggie fans should be very encouraged by the secondary’s performance against Nevada last weekend. USU’s DBs accounted for one interception, seven passes broken up and two forced fumbles. Wolf Pack signal caller Malik Henry only completed 44.7 percent of his passes, to boot.

Yeah, USU’s secondary has taken its jumps at times this season, but let’s not forget LSU and Wake Forest have NFL-caliber receivers and explosive passing attacks. Those two teams rank second and seventh, respectively, among all FBS programs in passing offensive, plus have combined for 49 TDs passes.

“It’s great for those guys,” Andersen said of the secondary’s performance against Nevada. “That group is a bunch of workers, they are tough-minded and very talented young men that are great athletes, or they wouldn’t be in the position that they’re in playing Division I football. What carries them through is their ability to fight through the good, fight through the bad and just keep grinding. They do that in practice. They did it all summer and did it all of spring football. They did it last January when they were conditioning.”

Aggie fans should also be encouraged by their team’s rushing defense, which has only allowed 3.2 yards per carry. I think this is USU’s best rushing defense since the 2012 squad, which yielded 113.8 ypg and 3.0 ypc.

The bottom line is I think the Aggies will play well enough defensively to have a chance to win this Saturday. The question is will the USU offense.

We will find out soon enough.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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